“He is naked except for a rainbow-colored …”
Fraser Wilson (It’s Jack Dylan Grazer) doesn’t quite finish reading the sentence out loud to himself from the earmarked copy of the book he’s picked up. As soon as he does, though, he looks away, his eyes flitting back and forth, buzzing from what he’s just read. When he puts the book down to send a voice message to his friend Mark about what he’s learned about the military base in Italy he now calls home, we’re given a good look at said book: William S. Burroughs’s The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead. The 1971 dystopian novel about an anarchist group of young homosexuals has its fair share of near-pornographic scenes. Once you realize Fraser all but mumbles his way through the word “jockstrap” in the line above, you see why the image Burroughs conjured for the peroxide-blond-haired teen would no doubt set his hormonal imagination ablaze.
This intimate moment, which happens near the ten-minute mark of Luca Guadagnino’s new HBO series We Are Who We Are (which he co-wrote with Paolo Giordano and Francesca Manieri), is a perfect way to begin talking about the Call Me by Your Name director’s latest endeavor.
First things first, though: Yes, this is set in sun-dappled Italy. Yes, it is also centered on the queer-teen experience. Yes, there are thrilling music cues that may well remind you of Armie Hammer dancing and Timothée Chalamet swooning. But immediately, We Are Who We Are announces itself as something altogether less precious, more modern (and more NSFW even!) than that peachy film adaptation.
Yet there’s no denying they share similar DNA, an ability to get us inside the heads of their teenage protagonists. Take the Wild Boys scene above: What’s most revealing about it is the way Guadagnino’s still camera lingers on Fraser, letting the moment he turns from Burroughs’s cheeky images to a more vulnerable revelation (“I love you,” he tells Mark) play out unencumbered on Grazer’s face. Just as this episode functions as an extended introduction to Fraser as he adjusts to life away from New York, it is also an introduction to Fraser’s way of looking at the world.
As Fraser traipses around the base, eyeing his new surroundings, you quickly get the sense that this is someone accustomed to being on the outside, always looking in, standing both apart and above it all. His nail polish, his hair, and his loud clothes (those leopard-print pants are quite the statement) signal both an attempt to stand out and a desire, perhaps, to be left alone. It’s the same push and pull we see in his relationships with his moms, both of whom spoil and coddle him in different ways. I mean, I can’t have been the only one shocked to see him slap Sarah (you don’t slap Chloë Sevigny!), only to see the two cling to each other, only to have him spout the oldest teenage cliché in the books (“I hate you!”). I’m curious to see how this weirdly codependent dynamic develops over the next few episodes, not just because I love having Sevigny back on HBO (anyone else miss Big Love?), but the idea of that indie queen playing a lesbian military mother feels just too perfect a casting choice.
But back to Fraser’s wayward ways. If this first episode is light on plot — we merely meander alongside Fraser as he leaves the base, fails to endear himself to fellow military brats, gets day drunk, hits his head, and then returns home — it’s heavy on mood, getting us to truly feel the insouciance and insubordination of the young. And this is what I found myself returning to time and time again as I watched We Are Who We Are: the way Guadagnino makes us live in that space where, as a queer teen, you find yourself not only keenly aware of how others look at you but, in turn, able to hone your own gaze to look at those around you in ways they may not often see themselves.
Fraser’s gaze, of course, is what guides the most pivotal scenes in this first episode. There’s that adorable moment of him stumbling onto a men’s locker room and finding himself more giddy than embarrassed when a naked soldier all but smirks his way while toweling off, but I’m talking of his interaction with Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón), all of which rests on how each sees the other.
The first time he stumbles onto Caitlin, she’s in a classroom reciting a poem — a Walt Whitman one at that, “I Am He That Aches With Love,” which is all the more apt given the way Guadagnino keeps those shirtless basketball players in frame in the window behind her. Fraser immediately goes to take her picture, only to find himself at the mercy of her stony stare, which later still he finds quite captivating. There’s something about her that pulls him in, that lets him know she may well be as adrift as he is, despite seemingly having a boyfriend and a group of friends she hangs out with. Later, it’s his curiosity when he sees her head out the door in a baggy shirt and a hat that pushes him to follow her, and what leads him to see her, quite literally, in a new light. Or, rather, by a new name.
The episode’s final line of dialogue — “So what should I call you?” — is a fitting end to the episode. It’s a friendly overture on Fraser’s behalf, but it’s also a question that puts the series’ title, and the self-fashioning agency it embodies, front and center. Guadagnino, of course, doesn’t let us hear the answer, preferring to leave it (and us) hanging. Until next week, that is.
This Is What It Is
• I can already tell I’ll need an official We Are Who We Are soundtrack album — preferably on vinyl — where I can enjoy both Devonté Hynes’s moody, twinkling score, as well as the eclectic musical genres that run through the show (Chance the Rapper! Doris Troy! Anna Oxa! John Adams!).
• “Americans can only be happy in America.”
• If someone much more fashion conscious/curious than I am somehow finds out where Fraser got his tee from (you know the one), I would very much appreciate the tip.
• In case you’re wondering, yes that is Francesca Scorsese playing Britney, whom we should all admire for her gumption at openly suggesting to his face (!) that Fraser has a big one for the way he carries his legs while he walks.
• Any guesses on what astrological sign Fraser is?
• “What do you mean? You’ve never been to New York?” is peak New Yorker, isn’t it?
• I can’t let this recap end without recommending Synonyms. If that soldier in the locker room caught your eye, be sure to know the actor’s name, Tom Mercier, and immediately go and rent/buy/stream Nadav Lapid’s 2019 drama, which I have to imagine is what nabbed him this role. I’m anticipating Mercier getting more screen time going forward, and I just want us all to be ready for what he’s sure to deliver.