Adolescence is a time of intense feeling. And in 2020 no filmmaker is better suited to direct his sensual eye towards this electric phase of life than Italy’s master of mood and sensation, Luca Guadagnino. We Are Who We Are, his first foray into television, is a coming-of-age story that features many of his usual themes and the trademarks of his visual style.
The eight-part series, co-created with Paolo Giordano and Francesca Manieri, travels slowly and sensitively across volcanic emotional terrain. For a drama about teenage life it unfolds in an unusual space – an American military base, somewhere in Northern Italy. Opening in the lead up to the 2016 U.S. election, politics is subtly invoked, as 14-year-old Fraser Wilson (Jack Dylan Grazer) arrives with his military mums, Sarah (Chloë Sevigny) and Maggie (Alice Braga) to the army garrison in Chioggia, near Venice, where Sarah is the new commander in charge.
From the moment Guadagnino introduces us to Fraser at the airport, he’s shy, lonely, and restless. When Fraser arrives at the base he finds a kindred spirit – Caitlin Poythress (Jordan Kristine Seamón), another teenager who lives next door. Sex, gender, and sexuality dominate in this portrait of youth in revolt, as Fraser and Caitlin – along with a fascinating coterie of teens around them – discover who they are.
Guadagnino has directed short films and documentaries, as well as campaigns for luxury fashion brands, including Fendi and Salvatore Ferragamo. But he’s best known for the three films known as the ‘Desire trilogy’: I Am Love (2009), A Bigger Splash (2015), and the critically acclaimed and adored, Call Me by Your Name (2017).
Desire continues to shape his work, and is certainly a defining force from the start in We Are Who We Are’s universe. It’s present, too, in his reimagining of the 1977 giallo horror classic, Suspiria (2018), where Susie Bannion’s (Dakota Johnson) desire to know herself propels her towards Berlin’s Markos Dance Academy and the full expression of her body’s power. For Guadagnino, desire is life – not just a sexual urge, but also a hunger that reconfigures how people interact with the world.
Like most directors, Guadagnino has a distinct visual style, and it has plenty of time to express itself across We Are Who We Are’s eight-plus hours. He’s a master of sensual filmmaking, skilfully building a sense of place, character, and mood, through an obsessive development of physical details – objects, fabrics, and food. We can practically taste, touch, and smell his films.
While Guadagnino might be seen to fetishize beautiful people and glamorous objects, this tactility is always in service to the story. In We Are Who We Are, when the camera lovingly frames Fraser’s clothes, books, and posters in his bedroom, it reveals them as objects that tell us something significant about who he is.
Guadagnino’s attention to detail creates immersive physical worlds from the outside in, as if placing characters in these environments to watch them react. In We Are Who We Are it’s clear that the military base is insular and stifling because when Fraser and Caitlin leave it for the river or the beach, Guadagnino captures their sense of freedom. We feel the radiant, erotic heat of an Italian summer in all three films of the ‘Desire trilogy’, as well as the austerity and confinement of a divided Berlin in Suspiria’s grey colour palette.
In We Are Who We Are, it’s summer in Italy too, and the textures of sand, sea, and skin are at the fore. Within this sweaty space, Guadagnino takes his cues from his characters. Privileging mood over action – it might sometimes feel as if nothing much is happening in We Are Who We Are – Guadagnino follows the rhythms of everyday life, interested not only in what an experience looks like, but what it feels like.
Guadagnino’s characters feel a lot. They are contradictions, frequently behaving in unexpected ways. Above all, Guadagnino is concerned with characters in the process of becoming and evolving. His camera stays close to these restless bodies – think I Am Love’s Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton) and Harry Hawke (Ralph Fiennes) in A Bigger Splash – allowing actors to craft physically expressive performances.
In We Are Who We Are, Fraser and Caitlin embody this searching restlessness, and across the first two episodes of the series Guadagnino follows them separately to uncover what they are both hungry to see and know and feel. At the simultaneously nervous and fearless age of 14, they are still in the process of becoming who they are – in each other they find a mirror, able to ask the questions they are afraid to ask of themselves. Fraser isn’t sure what he’s searching for, but Guadagnino makes it riveting to watch him make a mess while figuring it out.
What Guadagnino is interested in above all else is the emotional landscape his characters inhabit. He surveys it with a slow, intimate camera style that observes faces and bodies, and encourages us to do the same. In Call Me by Your Name the camera is always very close to Elio (Timothée Chalamet), revealing the terror and thrills the 17-year-old experiences when he falls in love for the first time. In We Are Who We Are a similar intense eye follows Fraser as he responds to his new environment and the upheaval of his feelings.
Guadagnino also uses music to catch the inner swell of emotion. The American composer, John Adams, is a favourite. His work features across each of the films of the ‘Desire trilogy’ and recurs in We Are Who We Are at key moments. Popular music is also vital. Fraser’s personal soundtrack is an eclectic one, featuring songs by, among many others, Klaus Nomi, Prince, and Blood Orange. When Fraser puts his headphones in he drowns out the surrounding noise (for us, too), and gives us direct access to his emotional world.
We Are Who We Are is an exhilarating portrayal of the thrills and spills of being a teenager in the world right now. Filming in digital for the first time, Guadagnino captures the immediacy of Fraser and Caitlin’s experiences and refines an aesthetic and visual style that perfectly expresses the probing spirit of youth. We Are Who We Are is new Guadagnino, but it’s already a classic.
Watch We Are Who We Are on SBS VICELAND Tuesdays at 9:25PM. The entire series is also available to stream at SBS On Demand.
Call Me By Your Name airs on SBS World Movies Saturday 7 November at 11:40PM and will be available to stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast.
Suspiria airs on SBS VICELAND Saturday 10 November at 11:30PM and will be available to stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast.
I Am Love is now streaming at SBS On Demand.