Of course, this is to conveniently ignore Suspiria (2018), Guadagnimo’s remake of the 70s cult-horror classic shot in wintry hues. Perhaps the director’s previous feature is the exception that proves the rule, because Guadagnimo’s new TV mini-series We Are Who We Are sees the director returning to northern Italy. Sort of…
A Limbo in a Limbo: We Are Who We Are
I think of Luca Guadagnino as a director of Italian sunlight: from 2015’s A Bigger Splash to the beautiful Call Me by Your Name in 2017, his cinema is one of luminous skin and bleaching books, of the play of light across swimming pools and calm seas, and of piazzas shot at midday when the sun is directly overhead, casting no shadows. You could characterise him as a director of the ‘Noonday Demon’ — the personification of acedia, a state of listlessness, excitability, and inattention to one’s duties that was said to have stricken early Christian monks. Certainly, one of Guadagnino’s greatest achievements is conjuring that special kind of restlessness that only the restfulness of a summer sojourn can provide.
"teenagers stuck in a state of never-ending transience"
If you’re worried about the series stimulating a wanderlust that you won’t be able to scratch for some months yet, don’t be: here, the characters are trapped both in the hormone-addled awkwardness of adolescence and in a U.S. Army base, a world of stuffy flag-raising, ten-huts, and creepy copy-paste suburban housing.
In the first episode, we’re introduced to jumpy, 14-year-old military brat Fraser Wilson (Jack Dylan Glazer); yet, filmed with the same elegiac attention to his youthful gangliness as Timothée Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name, his rebellious, loping cocksurety is as endearing as it is disturbing. At the airport information desk, he swears at his mothers over a missing bag and demands a glug from a hotel-sized bottle of vodka. The incident introduces an Oedipal co-dependency between Fraser and mother Sarah (Chloe Sevigny), which only gets edgier from here — and Sarah’s wife Maggie (Alice Braga) is implicated in the coddling, too.
Still, you don’t envy Fraser’s position one bit: turning up on the military base, where his mother is the incoming colonel, you’d soon be look for ways to push back against its sterility and severity. The camera tracks Fraser, with his bleached hair and oversize, leopard-print shorts, as he roams around the base, stealing a beer from the grocery store.
Fraser seems to live in a world without repercussions. No-one on the base stops him drinking. Later in the episode, Maggie will find him drunk and bleeding from a minor fall alone at the harbour and drive him home, while laughing it off. Then, peckish for a midnight snack, he raids the fridge. Sarah offers to cut him a slice of beef. Fraser slaps her for not cutting it thin enough. Guess what? Still no consequences. Instead, bizarrely, Sarah invites him to dance. For a discipling commander, she’s got a blind-spot when it comes to her own home.
"that special kind of restlessness that only the restfulness of a summer sojourn can provide"
Roaming about the base, from vignette to vignette, tension swelling and then subsiding is typical of the series’ lyrical flow. Guadagnimo is an expert in creating that drama, which, to me, feels holiday-like. Nothing bad happens on holiday. Things threaten to spill over, but always settle. This is not to say We Are Who We Are is lacking in suspense; rather it draws momentum from character-specific mystery: why does Sarah give her son such a long leash? What does Fraser hope to achieve through his rebellion? Guadagnimo punctuates the series with occasional freeze frames, which allude to moments captured out of the ordinary run of things.
Guadagnimo has a highly idiosyncratic and very compelling knack for capturing adolescence: at times the group of teenagers depicted here seem preternaturally able to follow their every whim without shame. Somehow, this underscores quite the opposite, revealing their awkwardness, insecurity and confusion about their identities. With intimate cinematography and loose plotting, we stay close to Fraser’s uncertainty, as well as his new group of friends on the base, as they explore themselves and their surroundings — an environment which seems to hum with sex, whether it be the beach or the men’s showers. With this close proximity, we’re taught to withhold our judgement, to follow these characters with a shared sense of drifting curiosity. After all, They Are Who They Are.
The series finds its heart in the burgeoning relationship between Fraser and ‘Caitlin’ (Jordan Kristine Seamon), with whom we spend the second episode. She answers to Caitlin, but introduces herself as ‘Harper’. Fraser follows her to a cafe, where he sees her flirting with a local Italian girl, her hair tucked into a cap. Wordly-wise — or perhaps, Wikipedia-wise, since he seems not to have worked out his own sexuality yet — Harper introduces her to concepts of transness and gender fluidity, later helping her shave her head and letting her stand behind him while he pees, as if using his body as a surrogate.
"from vignette to vignette, tension swelling and then subsiding is typical of the series’ lyrical flow"
Caitlin-Harper has a complex family life to contend with and push back against, too — a strict Nigerian mother and a MAGA-hat wearing father. That’s right, it’s 2016, and images of Trump and Clinton are glimpsed like distant dream (or nightmare), not having much to do with the hermetic purgatory of the military base and its solipsistic inhabitants.
"with this close proximity, we’re taught to withhold our judgement, to follow these characters with a shared sense of drifting curiosity"
Still, while politics are remote, they serve our theme: for me, that’s the magic of rules — and breaking them. Conformity brings with it its own pleasure — how else to explain the herd mesmerised at Trump rallies, or the troops marching left-right, left-right, left-right?
But what rules do we set for ourselves? Are we our own colonels? And how might we construct meaning for ourselves if we go our own way? In that special state of acedia — or the listlessness and excitability of being a teenager — which duties do we attend to, and which do we let go?
It would seem especially difficult for teenagers stuck in a state of never-ending transience, moving from base to base, to accept themselves. Yet, We Are Who We Are asks you to go along with the messy business of trying it out. Choose to collude with this ragtag group of wayward teens, and you’ll be reminded that we are all the sun-kissed freeze-frames, the shuffling tracks in our headphones, and the constant breaking and re-writing of our own rules.
By Sammi Gale