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We Are Who We Are review – Luca Guadagnino's teen drama burns slowly

Lucy Mangan
·4 min read

Only one of the eight episodes of We Are Who We Are (BBC Three), award-winning film director Luca Guadagnino’s first television outing, was available for preview. This seems a mistake, given that the coming-of-age story of a group of teenagers on an American airbase in Italy is so clearly a slow burner. It has been described by those in the US as exquisite, lyrical, poetic and in many other terms that loosely translate as “admirable, a talent showcase and yet ever so slightly boring at first sight”. Allowing for that handicap, then, let us sally forth and, like protagonist Fraser – roaming round the new home his US colonel mother, Sarah (Chloë Sevigny), and her wife, Maggie (a mere major, played by Alice Braga), have brought him to – see what there is for us.

At 14, Fraser (brilliantly played by Jack Dylan Grazer) is an unlovely piece of work. Face (complete with bumfluff moustache) set in a permanent sneer, headphones plugged as permanently into his ears, he is a self-indulgent mass of hormones and attitude. He is full of contempt for humanity and resentment of Sarah, who has brought the family to the Venuto military base so that she can take over from the outgoing commander. During one extended sequence of Frazer’s explorations of his new territory, my notes record that “he’s even annoying riding a bike”.

Fortunately, before he becomes too repellent to the viewer, he is taken up by Britney, an emollient presence (played by Francesca Scorsese – yes, daughter of) who introduces him to her gang of friends. It includes a girl who has already caught his eye, Caitlin (newcomer Jordan Kristine Seamón), whom he later discovers posing as a boy at a cafe off the base and chatting up a girl. It is Fraser – who has an intense friendship with someone called Mark back home in New York, and an eye for a handsome soldier himself – who will introduce her to the concept of a non-binary identity and the ability to move between or abandon the expectations society has set up for you.

Although We Are Who We Are is primarily a coming of age story, it is also one deeply interested in liminality – a very teenage concern too, of course, even if they rarely give their emotional insecurities, navigation of the treacherous crossing from the child to adult world, and their trying on and discarding of various social roles and positions such a name. The base itself is America within Italy, but its border is porous and the gang pick up some Italian language, as well as befriending soldiers of all nationalities within it. Sarah and Maggie are gay women in an aggressively heteromasculine world, always having to approach and respond circumspectly to inferiors’ and superiors’ reactions.

There are strange transgressions in Fraser’s family dynamic. Sarah and Maggie make little effort not to let him see them slipping into the bath together, and while his mother may rule with a rod of iron outside the home, she allows Fraser to demand alcohol from her and to slap her face without comeback when she fails to make a sandwich to his liking. When she cuts her finger, Fraser sucks it like a baby. When Maggie rescues him from what is evidently just the latest in a long line of drunken escapades, they have a (too?) adult conversation about how much Sarah loves each of them. “Sometimes when she’s kissing me,” says Maggie, “she doesn’t acknowledge me. It feels like she’s kissing a mirror.” Fraser remains convinced he is second in his mother’s affections, and when she comes near to hug him and talk he is still young enough to cry “invisible shield, invisible shield!” to repel her.

If beautifully shot, languorously paced character and mood pieces are your thing, you are going to be very happy with eight hours of this, especially if it maintains the opening episode’s ability to avoid ever tipping into smugness at just how much beauty and talent it has managed to assemble and play with. For others, unless that languorous pace picks up just a little and the characters become just a little more active, and the mood is driven by something more tangible than the sun-saturated landscape, We Are Who We Are may feel too inert to be worth keeping faith with. At the moment it feels slightly hollow – a confection of surfaces rather than a whole, pulsing story. At the same time, there is clearly rich potential here, and much that could and maybe will be done with it.