The thing about military brats is that we’re chameleons. We’re from nowhere, and we’re from everywhere. Because I spent my teenage years in Hawaii, that’s usually where I say I’m from, since it truly formed who I am today. But I can also say I grew up in Oklahoma. And the Philippines. There’s a bit of Chicago in me from college. And really, having now been an Angeleno for a quarter century, L.A. is my adopted home. Ultimately, to borrow the title of Luca Guadagnino’s recent HBO series, I guess “We Are Who We Are.”
Guadagnino created the series as an exploration of teens and self-identity, particularly when it comes with the fluidity of gender. And young stars Jack Dylan Grazer and Jordan Kristine Seamón do a terrific job of portraying what it’s like to be figuring out exactly who they, indeed, are.
Guadagnino originally considered setting the series in a nondescript American suburb. But then he came upon the idea of something very specific: an overseas U.S. military base. I’m not sure Guadagnino realizes what a perfect choice that was. It’s tough enough figuring out who you are as a kid — but imagine being surrounded by other kids who, like you, have likely reinvented themselves multiple times as they moved from place to place. Being a military kid is such a specific experience, and that makes Guadagnino’s universal coming-of-age all the more interesting.
When I asked Guadagnino about it, he said he was drawn to the military world and “this concept of anonymity, in [the] way in which you have to belong to a larger group and follow some orders within. That somehow [put] me in a greater position to describe the singular individuality of these teenagers.”
On a military base, that need to figure out who you are and what you like is an important part of breaking out from the sameness around you: the housing is all identical. Everyone shops at the same commissary. Every dependent gets the same military I.D. at age 10, which allows you access to the same amenities on base, from the library to the swimming pool. Everyone receives the same free health care from the same clinic. And it’s that interchangeable routine wherever you go.
And then one day you meet someone who shakes it up — who seems to have discovered how to break free from that uniformity. In “We Are Who We Are,” that’s Fraser (Grazer), who transfers to a U.S. base in Italy and moves next door to Harper (Seamón). They test their independence by traveling off base — without their parents — and finding their own space for the first time.
“Every adolescent has found themselves in the position of feeling dangerously free to do whatever they want because the gaze of the adults was not [on them] anymore,” Guadagnino says. “In this specific case this even means that you are entering a different world, because you come out of the world of the military, and you enter the world of Italy.”
Production designer Elliott Hostetter did a fantastic job recreating a U.S. military base, a necessity when the Pentagon took a look at the series’ scripts and realized it was far too edgy for its taste. “We were going to make it anyway, the way we wanted,” Guadagnino says. (For the record, I love my background as a military brat, and how living in so many different places shaped my worldview. It helped define who I am, even today.)
“We Are Who We Are” isn’t top of mind in this year’s Emmy conversation, but perhaps it should be. Months after watching, I’m still thinking about it