Really good teen shows can be hard to come by. In most cases, even the best ones ask us to suspend our disbelief and accept that a bunch of people well into their twenties are running around worrying about homework and crushes and what college they’re going to get into. Which, honestly, we’re all happy to do in the name of entertainment. But sometimes you’re looking for something a little more, dare I say, authentic. Part of the joy of Netflix’s Never Have I Ever was that its young lead, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, was actually, you know, young! And if that’s something you’re seeking in your teen TV, allow me to introduce you to We Are Who We Are.
Set on an American military base in Italy in 2016, the HBO drama follows a group of teens who have been thrown together by their unique circumstances. At the center of it all are Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer), the new kid at the base whose mother (Chloë Sevingy) just so happens to be the general, and Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón), whose father (Kid Cudi) is of a lower rank. It shows the ins and outs of growing up in America but not actually in America, of the struggle to figure out who you are in a community built on uniformity. Co-created, co-written, and directed by Call Me By Your Name‘s Luca Guadagnino, who’s becoming a master of the coming-of-age story, We Are Who We Are is a moody, atmospheric experience. It’s Riverdale by way of A24.
If that sounds like an insult to either We Are Who We Are or Riverdale, it’s not meant to be. The shows share a passion for high drama, quirky characters, and young romance, except when the teens in We Are Who We Are uncomfortably make out, they actually are teens. (No disrespect to Lili Reinhart, Cole Sprouse, or anyone else in the cast of Riverdale.) It would also be silly not to mention the DNA it shares with Euphoria, another HBO teen drama — and even though both series feature kids who abuse substances and yell at their parents, We Are Who We Are has something to say that is wholly its own.
It wants to take you back. It’s the kind of show that wants you to remember the agony of your first break-up, your first period, the all-consuming hurt you felt when your best friend found a new best friend. It wants you to remember how, in the best moments of your adolescence, you were on top of the world, and sometimes all it took to get you there was sharing the other end of a headphone cord with your pal. It wants you to remember those vicious fights with your parents that felt enormous, how it felt to be young and so misunderstood, to want to stand out and for no one to look at you again at the exact same time.
It helps that We Are Who We Are‘s protagonists are the Platonic ideal of teen protagonists. Grazer, whom you may know from the It movies (or when he graduated from the Timothée Chalamet school of acting with honors — watch the way he paces around while repeating his lines in the opening moments of the first episode, and you’ll see what I mean), brings the kind of confident awkwardness that could only be present in an actual teenage boy (Grazer is 17, while the character is 14). And when he vacillates between self-assuredness and defensive anger, you believe he actually knows how that emotional whiplash feels. As Caitlin, Seamón is quiet and observant as she begins to discover her own identity through gender expression, caught between what she wants to explore and what the very small world she exists in expects of her. She wants to impress and bond with her dad while also understanding that there’s something about her that goes beyond what he can understand.
It’s heavy stuff, but it feels real, and in the moments in which Fraser and Caitlin connect, talking about everything from first kisses to snacks to the meaning of gender (or lack thereof — if what you’re looking for is a show that makes a strong case for gender being a social construct, look no further), so does their friendship. “There’s a f—ing revolution going on inside of you,” Fraser tells Caitlin in one episode, which sounds like the kind of dramatic thing I, too, would’ve said in my youth, and also like the whole point of the show. There’s a revolution going on inside of all the characters; some of them choose to respond to it while others hide from it. We Are Who We Are doesn’t judge them either way.
Could you dismiss We Are Who We Are as weird, arty nonsense? Sure. Is it the kind of show that’s going to give you everything up front or let plotlines simmer under the surface? Definitely the latter. Will you walk away from episodes with more questions than you came with? Probably. But that’s all part of what makes it hella tight, in the words of an aforementioned teen icon. So let yourself obsess over We Are Who We Are, because it’s the kind of show your teen self would’ve felt seen by, and you should honor that kid every chance you get.
We Are Who We Are premieres Monday, Sept. 14 at 10/9c on HBO.