Watch “We Are Who We Are” with the volume up.
There are no high speed car chases or swelling orchestras in the new HBO/Sky drama. From co-creator and director Luca Guadagnino, the series centers a wandering pack of teenagers living on an American military base in an otherwise sleepy little Italian town circa 2016. And yet, the intimate filming and layered sound design makes “We Are Who We Are” feel more like an immersive experience than most action movies could dream of. As Guadagnino’s camera quite literally follows its wayward subjects throughout their days, we weave in and out of earshot of overlapping conversations, of characters losing themselves in the music pumping through their tinny headphones, of low voices sneaking through the cricket croaks hanging thick in the humid air. It’s so visceral as to become unsettling — but what else is being a teenager like, if not immersive, visceral and unsettling?
The first two episodes act in parallel to each other, unfolding over the same period of time but from the perspective of two different kids. In the premiere, 14 year-old Frasier (Jack Dylan Grazer) arrives in Italy from his “perfect” life in New York City to live on the base with his mothers (Chloe Sevigny and Alice Braga), one of whom, Sarah (Sevigny), is taking over as colonel. His first day on the base is a freewheeling exploratory mission that sees him careening through skeptical throngs of military members, meeting social butterfly Britney (Francesca Scorcese) and swigging cheap wine until he finally tumbles back home. Frasier is a furious live wire that no one, least of all himself, quite understands — until he meets Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón), his watchful neighbor whom he comes to know as Harper. The second episode tracks her experience of that same day up to the point when they finally meet, at which point it’s clear why they get each other on a level no one else has, or maybe ever will. Seamón’s Harper is the steady hand to Frasier’s fidgety one; their friendship grounds the sometimes hazy “We Are Who We Are” in something palpably real.
The series is at its most emotionally resonant while tracking that oxymoronic intersection of lazy spontaneity in which teenagers live. (The fourth episode, which details the idyllic and messy day before one of Harper’s brothers leaves base for a 2-year tour, is particularly, uncomfortably accurate on that score.) So it’s both interesting and disappointing that “We Are Who We Are” doesn’t seem to quite know who its adults are. This doesn’t seem the fault of the actors, who are all excellent. Sevigny’s Sarah is restless and mean; her relationship to her son is more than a little embryonic, a dynamic Sevigny plays well even as it never truly comes into focus. Braga, digging into a much more subdued role than her starring turn on “Queen of the South,” finds quiet power in sparse scenes. And as Harper’s parents, Faith Alabi and Scott Mescudi (aka Kid Cudi) are heartbreaking and startlingly sharp, respectively. But their actual material — written by Guadagnino, Paolo Giordano and Francesca Manieri — feels as affected as the kids’ material feels true. Writing the experiences of teenagers wasting time through a humid summer is one thing; writing the experiences of American military members living in Italy during the final months of the 2016 presidential election is quite another.
The show losing the thread of those adult characters is a particular shame because everything else in “We Are Who We Are” is so impressively, specifically meticulous. Frederik Wenzel’s cinematography, Marco Costa’s editing, Robin Urdang’s music supervision and Devonté Hynes’ original music crash together with Guadagnino’s directing to create dreamy slices of life that linger in the air like smoke. Even the captions, from graphic designer Nigel Peake, are unique unto the series, with translations appearing in spiky black handwriting on a white background (and in one memorable after-hours scene, in the reverse of white handwriting on a black background). As the series continues, it will be telling to see how the scripts handle the ongoing stories, which are largely (purposefully) nebulous. But in the early going, “We Are Who We Are” is an emotive portrait of makeshift community, bravado and life.
“We Are Who We Are” premieres Monday, September 14 at 10 pm on HBO.