by McKinzie Smith | October 15, 2020
Luca Guadagnino’s newest venture We Are Who We Are may best be understood as an expansion upon his previous work (I Am Love , A Bigger Splash  and Call Me By Your Name , also known as the ‘Desire Trilogy’). Set on an Italian military base, the HBO mini-series follows the American teenagers whose lives have always revolved around their parent’s active duty. They act out by fighting with their families and going on all night binges around the town of Chioggia. Though it is very much an ensemble piece, the emotional gravity centers itself around Fraser (Jack Dylan Glazer) and Caitlin’s (Jordan Kristine Seamón) burgeoning connection. This friendship (or maybe more) is exemplary of the depths of youthful intimacy that the show evokes so well. Both kids are in a stage of questioning; Fraser is grappling with a crush on an older soldier, while Caitlin is drawn to a more masculine gender presentation. Neither is sure about what they want out of life yet, but this is what makes their relationship all the more interesting: They push each other to figure it out.
The series starts with two individual episodes each introducing Fraser Wilson and Caitlin Poythress. In episode 3, “Right Here, Right Now III,” we are granted a closer look at Fraser and Caitlin’s friendship and life on base. As neighbors and friends, they spend their afternoons drifting on the water in Caitlin’s small family boat or going online in Fraser’s sparse bedroom. It is in these conversations that they edge at potentially precarious topics. Boredom leads to realization as they look at photos of a trans man and contemplate the meaning of gender itself.
“So, transgender is like, you change your name, change your face and your body, everything?” asks Caitlin.
“No, I… We were told for ages that we were either males or females, okay? And that was that. Males would do certain things and females would do certain things, end of story. Transgender means that you can just — you can just cut the bullshit.”
Fraser has given this more thought than Caitlin, but the weight of it seems to settle on her. She asks to touch Fraser’s stubbly boy beard and he begrudgingly accepts. She’s fascinated. Understanding implicitly what her desire is, he leads her to the bathroom and applies shaving cream to her face. Fraser walks her through the steps of shaving, just as his step-mother did to him. He nurtures her interest in manhood, even as they scramble to hide it when Fraser’s mom comes knocking on the bathroom door. For now, this rush is theirs alone.
With only four episodes having aired, it’s hard to tell where Caitlin’s journey will take her. Perhaps she will make the choice to transition, or perhaps not. What matters right now is the exploration made possible in the safety of Fraser’s presence. This is an experience that can often feel unique to childhood; the unconditional acceptance granted by someone just as confused as you are. When your parents are ultimately in control, connection with other young people can be a beacon toward the you that you wish to be. You figure it out together, one step at a time, even when it feels dangerous or uncertain.
This dynamic isn’t one-sided, though. Later in the episode, Caitlin and Fraser attend a local festival where they run into their peers and superiors. As they sit on a bench and listen to music, Caitlin brings up Fraser’s eye for an older soldier, Jonathan (Tom Mercier). At first, he pushes back, assuming that Caitlin only thinks he’s gay because his mom is a lesbian.
“Just ‘cause my mom’s a lesbian doesn’t mean that I’m gay,” he asserts.
“You don’t have to not be gay, either.”
Fraser seems taken aback by this and, for once, doesn’t talk back. She has given him the green light to think about his sexuality in a way unmoored from parental and societal expectations. For kids watching the show, this moment could prove as a catalyst for further introspection.
Much of We Are Who We Are is hard to watch. Fraser and his mother have an abusive relationship, Caitlin’s father is a Trump supporter, and many of the romantic relationships among the younger cast are decidedly unhealthy. However, these elements make the friendship between Fraser and Caitlin all the more compelling. If they’re able to be each other’s saving grace, then it follows that real kids at home experiencing similar circumstances can do the same for their friends. The negative forces in their life do not have to define them. Do we always have to create lives for ourselves based on what others expect? Wouldn’t it be more freeing to figure it out on our own terms, with the people who grant us the grace to do so?
This is ultimately what appears to be the show’s thesis statement. If we truly are who we are, we must figure out exactly who that is. This is a process of becoming, one that begins in adolescence but never actually stops. What Fraser and Caitlin have may set them up positively for genuine experimentation and understanding of themselves. It is a blueprint for how young people can help each other grow into who they need to be. To watch two kids grant one another such unconditional acceptance is a wonderful thing to watch and I’m very intrigued to see where Guadagnino takes us from here.