By Samuel Still, Assistant News Editor–
HBO’s We Are Who We Are is beautifully, meticulously crafted from the ground up, but its approach to storytelling struggles to find its deeper meaning.
The miniseries was directed, co-created and co-written by Luca Guadagnino, the critically acclaimed director of Call Me By Your Name (2017) and follows the lives of two teenagers, Fraser and Caitlin, as they explore their gender and sexual identities while living on an American military base in Italy. Similarly to his 2017 film, We Are Who We Are explores themes of identity, youth and relationships, and his approach to making the series is almost magical. The camerawork is mesmerizing and beautiful, the direction is exquisite and the acting is superb. However, the writing leaves something to be desired.
From its first episode, the series begs the audience to lean in and become engrossed by the world it envisions. Fraser and his military mothers, Sarah and Maggie, have just moved to Italy so that Sarah can take over as the commander of an American military base. Fraser, like any other teenager who is forced into new situations, is frustrated and aloof. He does not want to be in Italy and he most certainly does not want to be on a military base. Things change, however, when Fraser, while exploring the base, stumbles through the base’s high school and sees Caitlin in one of the classrooms. Over the course of the following episodes, Fraser and Caitlin become closer and freer with one another than they have been with others. We Are Who We Are is at its strongest narratively when it follows the relationship between Fraser and Caitlin and their exploration of their respective identities.
The narrative falters, however, when it tries to follow the stories and relationships of other characters. Caitlin’s group of friends from the base exist almost solely in the background, never being given anything to do besides furthering the stories of Fraser and Caitlin. Despite their seeming lack of purpose in the narrative, the show continually focuses on Caitlin’s friends in an attempt to make some kind of statement on the meaning of social groups among teenagers, but every attempt falls flat because the characters are not necessary to tell the story of Fraser and Caitlin.
A more interesting relationship exists between Fraser and his mother Sarah, but the series so far seems to have no interest in exploring their volatile, perplexing bond. In the first episode, Sarah is having a late night snack, a roast brought to her family by Caitlin’s mother, and Fraser comes to have a slice for himself. When Sarah does not cut the slices like Fraser wants, he slaps her with shocking fury and vulgarly berates her. The moment comes completely out of nowhere and is so surprising that it takes the viewer out of the hypnotic trance the show has placed them in so far. To complicate matters, Fraser and Sarah reconcile not long after the incident and hold each other tenderly as if the slap and insults never happened. This is not even the only instance of the son and mother fighting and reconnecting, but it is one of the series’ most shocking. The problem with these moments though is that they setup an interesting dynamic between the two that could make for compelling television, but the series never explains how this dynamic came to be or why it continues. These moments create many questions, but the writers never provide answers which makes for a frustrating viewing experience. The altercations between Fraser and Sarah feel thrown in to create drama which seems unnecessary when the show could better focus on the much more interesting relationship between Fraser and Caitlin.
From a creative standpoint, We Are Who We Are is an almost perfectly crafted series with a compelling concept, gorgeous cinematography and directing and stellar performances from all of the actors, but the series struggles to find what it wants to say about the human experience. The series mentions interesting plot points that could be mined for excellent storytelling, however its refusal to follow these plot points in any meaningful capacity holds the show’s story back from being as great as it could be. As of the writing of this article, only four episodes are available to stream on HBO Max with the series’ final four episodes scheduled to air on Monday nights over the next few weeks. Hopefully, by the time the series concludes, it will have found its footing and discovered what its main message is supposed to be. As of now though, the series is a lush production lacking in narrative cohesion.