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Best known for his 2017 film “Call Me By Your Name,” director Luca Guadagnino made his television debut last week with the premiere of his new HBO series “We Are Who We Are.” From the show’s first moments, we can sense a parallel between the two.
The first shot, set at an airport lost and found, features a close-up of Fraser Wilson (Jack Dylan Grazer), earbuds in, anxiously twirling bleach-blond hair with painted fingernails. We learn he is an army brat being forced to move to Chioggia, Italy, where the latter half of his “good cop, bad cop” lesbian mom duo has been named commander of a U.S. military base. As the camera focuses in on our awkward protagonist’s even more awkward mustache, we hear “I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky," — complete with bright, staccato brass punches and cascading piano rounds characteristic of composer John Adams, who wrote the iconic opening track of CMBYN, “Hallelujah Junction.”
From minute one, presented with a knock-off Timothée Chalamet, we expect Guadagnino’s signature story of an angsty young man grappling with unrequited gay love. Where CMBYN is a rustic, timeless love story, “We Are Who We Are” takes place in a much more on-the-grid, present-day setting, where elements such as iPhones, high school life, and military officers make things a lot less idyllic. While a “CMBYN-but-modern” premise is ostensibly intriguing to pursue, the premiere falls short in execution: By doing a poor job of painting American teen life and presenting a protagonist with a few too many layers of trauma, the premiere is unable to connect realistically to a teen audience.
The first issue is the clear lack of young people writing the dialogue. Take this clichè after-school chat between Caitlin and Brittany, two girls Fraser eventually befriends:
Brittany: Did you see Sam’s necklace?
Brittany: I think he’s wearing it for you. It’s his way of saying I’m chained to your love.
Caitlin: I don’t like necklaces. And, I don’t believe in love.
The whole episode is full of this poorly-written “teen banter,” especially from the male jock stereotypes who joke about people as if they’re not in earshot and tease Fraser for his t-shirt, among other outdated heteronormative bully antics. This is especially disappointing coming from HBO, a network that has done really well with taking on youth culture in the past (see: “Euphoria”). Even worse, the delivery of these poorly written lines is consistently forced and awkward; no real teenager talks like the show’s characters do. So while the show presents itself thematically as a new-agey, norm-bending teen bildungsroman, the dialogue comes off like a bad high school sitcom. Fraser’s character does little to make the premiere feel more relatable to the viewer.
In the behind the scenes clip that accompanies the premiere, Grazer says, “I think everyone can relate to Fraser… I was blown away with how well the realism and emotions portrayed the current life of an adolescent.” This is not really close at all to the truth; Fraser is less sympathetic than he is intriguing:
In the span of 50-or-so minutes, Fraser stalks and photographs a girl he doesn’t know, who may or may not be transgender; is seemingly unperturbed by about a dozen full frontals (one of which is from his bad cop mom); goes on a lonely bender, revealing that he is a 14-year-old alcoholic; and finally slaps his mother for slicing turkey too thin, collapsing into her arms and asking her to “get the bottle.” So, while he does want to know his new neighbors’ moon signs and listen to Kanye West and Chance the Rapper, these details fail to make him seem relatable, as they don’t feel as central to his identity as his issues with his mother or alcoholism. While the premiere sets up the series to take on a lot of complex and exciting issues, it’s a little too overwhelming to feel realistic to the viewer.
In the end, each time Fraser is subjected to the tired trope of “outsider-teen subverts dated, stereotyped high school social structure,” it distracts from the many other, more interesting subjects that clearly will need a lot of attention to properly address. As it stands, “We Are Who We Are” takes on way too many issues and fails to realistically portray them. If later episodes are able to improve on the premiere’s cliché high school dialogue and give a little more context to Fraser’s complex family life, “We Are Who We Are” has the potential to become what its first song reminded us Guadagnino was capable of: a comprehensive, sympathetic character study viewers can truly be invested in.
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