The (kind of) intrinsic atmosphere of ‘We Are Who We Are’

November 13, 2020

Luca Guadagnino and HBO’s “We Are Who We Are” is a unique show that carries through with a lot of the cinematic elements the company and director are known for. Combining the mind behind “Call Me By Your Name” and the corporation behind “Euphoria,” the show does not set out to be anything short of atmospheric, full of feeling and an exploration of queer coming of age stories. “We Are Who We Are” did all of this, but there were moments where it didn’t quite hit the mark. 

“We Are Who We Are” follows a young teen, Fraser Wilson (Jack Dylan Grazer) who is forced to leave his home in New York City as his mom is named the new commander of a military base in Italy. There we meet a number of other young adults who are struggling with their identities, creating a unique amplification of the ideas of masculinity and nationalism and sense of self that come from having a home that has never been consistent.

Coming of age plots often follow individuals finding their sense of home, their understanding of themselves within the context of the world around them. However, the approach to this is unique in ‘We Are Who We Are,’ as there is no clear sense of home. All of the characters are “Americans” who seem to be living aggressively American lives in an isolated community. However, the youth are constantly taking the bus to get out of the base, as coming of age is about leaving the framework of the lives and bodies our families have forced onto us. 

When Fraser arrives, he sticks out as a rebel against any roles the community or society set in place. He has a distinctive sense of style and refuses to remain in any sort of box. A lot of this rejection of the status quo comes from a place of aggression and a complicated relationship with his mother, Sarah Wilson (Chloe Sevingny). 

Because he has two moms, Sarah seems to be overly concerned with creating a sense of hetero and gender normativity and Fraser doesn’t see the world in the same way. He explains, “We are told for ages that we are either males or females okay? It’s not that simple. It’s not even binary. It’s like a symptom and if you pay attention, you discover real-life… It’s a f*cking revolution going on inside of you.” Yet his mother, despite having a wife and a traditionally “masculine” job, seems overly concerned with having the role of a father in Fraser’s life. 

She separates his other mother, Maggie, from his life and even goes as far as to set up Fraser with an older man he had an interest in. Maggie expresses concern about this, but Sarah is focused on the idea of a role model. The audience knows that Fraser’s interest is, in fact, romantic, and this teetered a dangerous line of problematic age gap relationships (of which Guadagnino has crossed before). Yet, the way in which the relationship was portrayed here wasn’t necessarily something that the audience was meant to root for or see as healthy. 

Nevertheless, if there is one thing that Luca Guadagnino knows how to do well it is to create a sense of realism and atmosphere through his direction. A lot of the best elements of this show are unscripted and the way the camera moves with the characters transports the audience into their lives, from the numerous still shots of characters that give us a sense of what they are feeling to the way the soundtrack correlates with the character’s lives.

Soundtrack is the most intrinsic element to atmosphere in media and this one didn’t quite make the mark in the same way Labrinth’s brilliant work in “Euphoria” did. The way in which the musician Blood Orange’s work is somewhat tied in with the characters’ journeys in terms of gender identity and connection to one another was good in theory but could have been applied so much better. Fraser gushes over Blood Orange constantly to Harper, providing a sense of escapism and a map for personal identity. However, this also creates some disconnect as it’s outwardly acknowledged rather than subconsciously intertwined with the story. 

This idea is further continued in the final episode where secrets are revealed as Fraser and Harper make their way to a Blood Orange concert. Once they arrive, the two are completely disconnected. Each is lost in their own world with a romantic interest and don’t seem to be enjoying the music together. The scene feels disconnected, but it allows the viewer to see that in order to come to terms with who they both are the characters need to get lost briefly in order to reconnect more fully as themselves. It isn’t until after the concert in complete silence that the two reconnect. 

There seem to be these threads that often exist in queer stories of how one can grasp onto others in a “found family” in order to help grow and better understand one’s identity. Ultimately, finding oneself is a personal journey, and sometimes that means getting lost in order to find your way back to each other again. However, because of these elements, the common thread of the soundtrack gets lost, and so does the atmosphere as a result. The tune of the songs doesn’t seem to consistently represent the characters’ journeys because they are revealed so blatantly as a guiding stone.

In this broken world, we’re all just trying to find ourselves and it’s through relationships and stories that we can make these discoveries. “We Are Who We Are,” although not flawless, manages to show this, both in its characters’ stories and the way in which it envelops the viewer in the story so that they gain new perspectives and insights. Film and television are powerful mediums that allow us to see the world through other people’s eyes firsthand, and “We Are Who We Are” executed this in powerful and unprecedented ways. 

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