Describing Luca Guadagnino’s HBO eight-parter as being about two American teenagers in Italy growing increasingly close is, while technically accurate, decidedly misleading: this is hardly a remake of George Roy Hill’s A Little Romance (1979) with its puppy-love kiss under Venice’s Bridge of Sighs.
Although Venice is briefly glimpsed, the bulk of WRWWR (to give it its occasional onscreen title) is set on a US military base in Chioggia, at the other end of the Venetian Lagoon. The language is mostly American English (snippets of Italian are subtitled in hand-scrawled block caps), and so is the dominant culture – military supermarkets are identical regardless of host country, and cinema audiences stand for the Star-Spangled Banner before watching Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016, the year in which the series is set).
In an environment where conformity is strongly encouraged, it comes as little surprise that individual characters wrestle with fundamental questions of identity. This is especially true of Fraser and Caitlin (Jack Dylan Grazer and Jordan Kristine Seamón, both outstanding), who, as the mid-teenage offspring of military personnel, are not living in the camp of their own volition. (“Who’s gonna stop me?” asks Fraser in would-be Brando/Dean rebel mode, only to get the cheerful reply: “About a thousand soldiers.”)
The first two episodes overlap substantially, respectively told from their individual viewpoints, with the result that half-heard conversations in Episode 1 come into focus in Episode 2. Fraser is the only white American male in his immediate teenage circle, his peroxide curls and leopard-print knee-length shorts further emphasising his Otherness, as does the fact that his parents are both female.
Guadagnino’s tracking of Fraser’s lengthy, solipsistic walks recalls the work of Alan Clarke, the ante upped here by other characters being equally intrigued – although in the case of the sexually precocious Brittney (played by Martin Scorsese’s daughter Francesca), it’s specifically to estimate his physical attributes. For all Fraser’s verbal attempts at inventing a streetwise persona, his body language betrays him as surely as a confession under oath.
Caitlin’s dilemma revolves around gender, a crisis triggered by the onset of menarche on a beach. Experimentally adopting new names – Albert, Harper – as casually as a change of clothes, she’s initially repelled by Fraser until she realises that he may not merely be a kindred spirit but also an essential ally. When she asks if she can hold his penis while he urinates, she persuades him that this isn’t a sexual gesture.
Her African-American family unit is more ostensibly conventional – heterosexual parents (at least outwardly), an older brother – but that conceals similar crises; her father Richard (Scott Mescudi) is drawn towards Donald Trump’s election campaign, while her brother Danny (Spence Moore II) is serious about Islam to the point of learning Arabic. (Trump’s promise of a Muslim ban is emblazoned on a giant communal screen.)
Thereafter, the narrative is linear, with individual episodes sometimes revolving around single set pieces – for instance, the wedding of Craig (Corey Knight) and Valentina (Beatrice Barichella) and its increasingly orgiastic follow-up celebrations dominate Episode 4. (As one might expect from Guadagnino, the entire series is sexually uninhibited from the outset, especially with regard to frontal male nudity.) Throwaway early details become pivotal later: a brief encounter between ‘Harper’ and Giulia (Nicole Celpan) in Episode 2 flowers into the essence of Episode 5 when Fraser shaves Caitlin’s head as part of a complete physical reinvention into a more fully conceived Harper, complete with artificial facial stubble.
Guadagnino peppers all this with naggingly memorable touches: a paintball game becomes a jarringly colourful display of toxic masculinity; toy dinosaurs become symbolically emblematic of Fraser’s longed-for relationship with his mother’s colleague Jonathan (Tom Mercier); and there’s even a full-blown song-and-dance number involving an identically dressed Fraser and Harper and a matching white grand piano.
Guadagnino uses the longer-form medium to indulge in lengthy, often wordless personal reveries whose emotional content is gleaned from the surrounding context, accompanying music or, near the end, onscreen but ignored text messages sent to Harper after a situation in which euphoria is followed by near-trauma.
Despite the rigidly circumscribed environment, the outside world sometimes encroaches – Trump’s election victory concludes Episode 6, a death on active service dominates Episode 7, and Episode 8 is largely set in Bologna around a concert by Blood Orange (aka Devonté Hynes, who also composed the score).
Indeed, this final episode feels like the culmination of a psychology experiment in which teenagers who’ve been living in an artificially controlled environment are unleashed on the outside world, with all the potential for chaos that this engenders. But Guadagnino revels in it; as he’s shown in the past, he knows that coping with chaos is the essence of being human.
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