Within a day of arriving in Italy from New York, Fraser Wilson, the protagonist of Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are, gets blood on his prized Raf Simons T-shirt. The garment, from Simons’s 2013 spring/summer collection, is printed with a painting by the artist Brian Calvin of a pale-skinned woman holding a can of Modelo; it’s an item with clout that, until a recent spike in price, tended to sell secondhand for around $200 on the menswear resale site Grailed. Fraser, played by Jack Dylan Grazer, loves it—he name-drops its designer at every possible opportunity—and bloodies it after getting drunk and falling off a bridge railing. The fall cuts his cheek, staining the shirt’s front with a soft crimson splotch.
We Are Who We Are is a meditation on youth, less as a time in one’s life than as a mindset one inhabits—the capacity to be brave, careless, and skeptical in ways that often go wrong and at times produce something miraculously, ecstatically emancipatory. Fraser is the typical rebellious teenage son of a disciplined parent. His mother, Sarah Wilson (Chloë Sevigny), is a US Army colonel transferred to run a dysfunctional military base in Chioggia, Italy. As Sarah, an outwardly stoic character with a tendency toward intrusion in the emotional lives of others, asserts her authority at the base, Fraser navigates relationships with the other teenage children of the soldiers there—in particular, Caitlin Poythress (Jordan Kristine Seamón), aka Harper, who is exploring their trans identity.
The HBO series is set in 2016, timestamped with a soundtrack of Blood Orange and Young M.A and the background hum of the Trump-Clinton debates on TV. Harper’s father, a strict lieutenant colonel named Richard Poythress—played by Scott Mescudi, better known as the rapper Kid Cudi—is a Donald Trump supporter, and one particularly striking shot shows him tugging a MAGA hat over Harper’s hair and smiling into the mirror. It’s a smart choice to set the stage for cataclysms large and small against the naive arrogance prevalent in the run-up to the 2016 elections. We Are Who We Are traces how these assumptions of victory—among youth, the 2016 Democrats, the US military, and perhaps Americans in general—fall apart, with disastrous consequences.
Early in her tenure at the base, Sarah briskly decides to send a detachment of troops to Afghanistan over Richard’s protests that they are not ready. On the night of Trump’s victory, she gets word that three of the soldiers were killed by an IED blast, a loss that many on the base blame on her leadership. One of those soldiers, Craig Pratchett, was a member of Harper’s group of friends and had just married his pregnant 19-year-old girlfriend, Valentina, before deploying. His friends return to the empty seaside mansion where they had staged an ad hoc wedding party to mourn Craig with vodka and drugs, a night that ends with a bad trip and smashed windows.
From then on, the lives of Fraser and Harper will be profoundly affected by the consequences of Sarah’s choices. The deaths set off a chain of events that lead to Richard’s transfer and his family, including Harper, leaving Italy. Harper shows an interest in joining the military, which would become an impossibility as an out trans person under Trump-era rules—and both teens discover they have very little agency to change the world around them. They become pawns in their parents’ power struggle at the base, a situation Fraser addresses mostly by shouting at his mom and Harper deals with by retreating behind headphones.
Part of Guadagnino’s mastery in the show is the way he examines the pair’s efforts to find a place in which they belong: how they dress, where they go, how they spend their days, who they are. Some of the show’s best scenes are in places Fraser and Harper appropriate and make their own: the Poythresses’ peach-tiled bathroom, where they buzz Harper’s hair, or the seaside mansion for Craig and Valentina’s wedding party, where they eat stolen spaghetti by the handful and drink stolen booze. They carve out space for grand, private ambitions during unfavorable times, a quest that leads to unexpected flashes of insight.
Of the forms of self-expression the pair employ, fashion is Fraser’s chosen language. Their friendship begins when he notices Harper’s interest in presenting as male and offers himself as a kind of chaotic teen Pygmalion. “The stuff you wear is inappropriate for what you’re planning on doing,” he tells them with blunt honesty when they wear a baggy men’s dress shirt and baseball cap to flirt with a girl at a bar. He attempts to mold Harper not into an image of the ideal man but rather into the particular Gen Z, New York–based fashion archetype he himself embodies. Fraser sends them a Dover Street Market bag containing a designer polo and carpenter jeans, and soon Harper begins to dress in items like a vintage Coogi sweater and a duck jacket. On a date with the girl from the bar, Harper wears an orange hoodie borrowed from Fraser and wide canvas pants, a more self-assured look than the oversize dress shirt and hat. (Still, the date ends with a crushing offhand remark: “Lo so che sei una ragazza“—“I know you’re a girl.”)
Fraser’s own wardrobe demands an audacious suspension of disbelief at times. He has several pieces of suiting by avant-garde designers like Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto and an archival tactical vest, printed with colorful tempera-painted flowers, by the cult German designer Bernhard Willhelm. His go-to puffer jacket is a $1,991 Vetements piece produced, anachronistically, in the spring of 2018, and he owns a couple of limited-edition Takashi Murakami plushies of grinning flowers with rainbow petals. In contrast with the precise uniformity of the adults’ military garb and practical civilian wear, the clothing worn by Fraser and Harper belongs to an alternate universe of expressive freedom and limitless creative resources.
Harper balks at some of Fraser’s suggestions. When Harper rejects a recommendation about how to style a mustache made from hair clippings, Fraser complains, “This is not what I had in mind for you,” and Harper shoots back, “Surprise, I exist outside of your mind.” But Fraser’s understanding of Harper’s desire to live differently in their gender gives both of them an entry into this alternate universe—a world of good clothes, gender-fluid beauty, music, poetry, and romantic possibility. They access it in large part through their phones and computers, sprawled out in their bedrooms, which does not make it any less real.
Later in the series, Harper and Fraser both get a chance to test their identities away from the base, in particular in the series’s final episode, when the pair hitch a ride to Bologna for a Blood Orange concert the night before Harper’s family leaves Italy. For each, it leads to vague disappointment. Fraser ends up kissing a boy named Luca (the only character in the show to match his enthusiasm for Raf Simons), which proves to be underwhelming, and Harper flirts with a bartender, a woman with a buzz cut wearing a safety-pinned corduroy jumpsuit, who takes Harper backstage. After they kiss, the bartender asks, “You’re transgender, right?,” and Harper panics and leaves.
The show’s final moments come as a surprise, one that casts love as belonging less to the realm of fantasy than to hard-won self-knowledge, something that comes near the point of exhaustion. Love, Guadagnino proposes, is not the enchanting stranger across a crowded room, but the person with whom you have weathered the storm. It is not a matter of ideals (gendered or otherwise) but of practice: You have to make it happen. By the end of 2020, many of us had reached our own points of exhaustion and loneliness, and this makes the lesson of We Are Who We Are especially poignant. It is still possible to find joy and maybe even love in unfavorable times, but it requires effort and a willingness to embrace all of the messy, stupid, youthful bravery that helps us see ourselves and others clearly.