Given that Walt Whitman has played a key role so far in We Are Who We Are, it shouldn’t be surprising that this third episode opens with a lovely discussion about the value of poetry between our two teen protagonists. What spurs it may be Fraser’s copy of Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds (“In the body, where everything has a price, / I was a beggar,” he reads aloud), but it quickly becomes a chance for Fraser — and the show — to put forth a thesis we’ve already been seeing play out. In contrast to Caitlin’s fast fashion and junk-food choices, Fraser talks about how he’s “looking for stuff that means something.” He loves the intentionality of poetry, where every word is painstakingly chosen and demands that you afford it the importance it deserves.
The same, of course, can be said for We Are Who We Are. With the show’s leisurely pace and swoonworthy soundtrack, the roving camera all but demands you pay attention to its various details, which in turn help better frame the scenes around them. Take the moment when Sam (Ben Taylor) breaks up with Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón). Having us shuttle from Sam’s POV to Caitlin’s, with the camera yanking us from one to the other, stresses the disconnect between the two.
Moreover, getting to see Sam be quite vulnerable, hoping Cait won’t be as aloof as she ends up being when he says it should be over, while director Luca Guadagnino cuts to a wide shot where we see a military drill of soldiers doing push-ups feels like a shorthand that brings into focus ideas and ideals about masculinity that run through the entire show. See, for instance, the tug-of-war episode and the fight that follows, or even Richard’s offhanded comment about how he thinks lesbian relationships conform to a heteronormative hierarchy in which one of the women must do the chores while the other takes a masculine role: “I can’t see it work any other way.”
Later, when Cait’s brother, Danny (Spence Moore II), wistfully wonders out loud what it would feel like to just jump off and end the angst-ridden life he feels trapped in, his friend’s reaction feels jarring precisely because it’s a kind of terrifying vision of masculine tenderness: “If you mention something like that again, I’ll crack your skull right open.” In a show set at a military base and centered on teenagers learning to grow into their bodies, such moments are intentionally juxtaposed with the more ethereal and fluid ideas around gender roles that Fraser espouses — or tries to, at least. Seeing him struggle to explain the trans experience to a curious Caitlin (“It’s like a fever … a fever is a symptom that your body feels … it is but it isn’t”) is endearing for how nonchalantly it acknowledges the difficulty in verbalizing something that’s so visceral. In essence, he’s saying you just have to listen to your body, which is a more radical proposition than it initially sounds.
Also, and not to dwell on this scene for too long, but that lengthy, slow closing in on Fraser and Caitlin, where we’re positioned as both screen and camera, may be my favorite moment of the series so far. The two may be looking at a very handsome trans man — finding in his pictures perhaps different things about themselves — but the fact that they’re literally looking at us and letting us see the mix of curiosity, lust, fascination, and embarrassment wash over their faces is hypnotic, capturing what I think this show does best: namely, zeroing in on moments of self-exploration to show how messy they can be. Guadagnino doesn’t just give us close-ups to offer a chance to see what Cait or Fraser is thinking. He holds them, sometimes for an uncomfortable amount of time, to force us to think alongside them, like when we see Cait sighing to herself alone in her room, preoccupied yet again with the size of her breasts.
Of course, to talk about We Are Who We Are as a poetic riff on the coming-of-age story, with recursive motifs and an insistence on capturing moments rather than tracing any big narrative, can obscure how fascinated the show is with the more prickly issues it touches on and leaves hanging — to revisit later, perhaps? This is definitely the case with Fraser’s relationship with his mother, Sarah (Chloë Sevigny). The slap in that first episode and the tender moment that followed initially signaled that this mother-son duo have a fraught dynamic. Sarah bluntly telling Fraser that he shouldn’t be jealous of her because Cait likes her is an apology wrapped up in a provocation. And to judge by Alice Braga’s Maggie (“He’s always been complicated”), it’s clear this kind of fight is nothing new. It speaks to struggles about families writ large, but here they’re grounded in the queer experience. For Sarah, it’s hard to be father and mother, as she says (all but ignoring Maggie’s role), and you almost wish she would take a page out of Fraser’s book and work instead to fight that kind of binary in the family unit.
But the tension between mother and son (here again juxtaposed with the way she coddles him in the middle of the night) speaks to their specific dynamic, at once co-dependent and also quite volatile. By the time Fraser sees Sarah dancing with Major Jonathan (Tom Mercier) at the festival later, the jealousy and heartbreak that he feels seem just as easily directed at him as they are at her. For someone who’s so obviously looking for meaning in everything, such a scene can’t help but be intentional, telling Fraser something not just about his mother but about the young man who makes him blush with giddy abandon. Here’s a Whitman scene again, just another boy aching with love — for her, for him, perhaps for both at the same time.
This Is What It Is
• “What is American food?”
• I really wish Fraser were still going through his turban phase.
• Even as the story has mostly focused on Cait and Fraser, I am more and more intrigued by Maggie. Learning how everyone dismisses her claim to motherhood when it comes to Fraser, despite having been in his life since he was born, is heartbreaking. Moreover, her stroll with Jenny (Faith Alabi) and the connection they almost begrudgingly create are divine, a reminder that, in Guadagnino’s world, every encounter is tinged with eroticism (I mean, that pie scene is basically food porn, no?) and that issues about who we are and who we want to be don’t really disappear once we become adults.
• Hearing Jonathan talking about Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous made me wish we could get Mercier to briefly summarize more recent queer classics to add to our to-read pile.
• Speaking of books, here are a few titles in Fraser’s bedroom: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Diane Keaton’s Then Again, Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, John Updike’s Rabbit Run, Jérôme Carcopino’s Daily Life in Ancient Rome, and The Complete Works of Walt Whitman.
• While we’re talking about Fraser’s room: that Italian Blue Velvet poster is to die for.
• First the Donald Trump ad and now a Hillary Clinton convention speech: Are we really inching toward the 2016 election as the backdrop for the entire series?