When up ‘n coming California DJ Cole (Zac Efron) breaks down the necessary components for success, which has eluded him up to this point, he figures all it takes is “a laptop, some talent, and one track”. That simplistic formula might as well apply to Max Joseph’s ADD-addled “We Are Your Friends”, a mash-up of every “young creatives with big dreams” movie you’ve ever seen, set against the backdrop of the bass-heavy EDM scene. It’s only when Joseph, whose claim to fame is MTV’s “Catfish” series, is able to capture the sensual, rhythmic feel of the music that he taps into something fresh and leaves behind the hokey tropes of the genre.. For all its faults, and there are many, there is an energy coursing through it every time the beat drops that is tough to deny.
When the music’s not playing and the beautiful bodies aren’t gyrating at a well-rocked house party, “We Are Your Friends” is as familiar as an old lullaby. Cole and his crew of rambunctious pals (Jonny Weston, Alex Shaffer, Shiloh Fernandez) have dreams of breaking free of San Fernando Valley and hitting the big time. But for now they are slummin’ it on the outside, scraping by promoting weekly house parties and living on one another’s couches to get by. But the fun they have makes it all worth it; their nights are filled with sex, drugs, and music, a veritable cornucopia of debauchery and youthful exuberance. One night after a solid spin, Cole hits on the gorgeous Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), unaware that her boyfriend is DJ James Reed (Wes Bentley), an older DJ who has everything Cole aspires to: fame, fortune, and freedom to do as he pleases. After a wild night of partying, James takes on Cole as his friend and student, and it’s a mentorship that threatens to ruin every other relationship in Cole’s life.
So does Cole stay true to his buddies, who are rightfully referred to as a “bunch of gorillas”? Or does he leave them behind in favor of pursuing his goals? It’s a question we’ve seen play out in this genre way too often, and it doesn’t help that there’s an equally rote love story between Cole and Sophie who, shockingly, has greater aspirations than her current station in life. There’s also Cole’s hunt to find his own signature sound; to put together that one perfect mix that will set the EDM world on fire and get hearts racing at the perfect 120 BPM.
Directed with all of the flourish one might expect from an MTV host, We Are Your Friends zips along like a drugged-out partygoer, splashing flashy graphics to mask the hokey screenplay. But Joseph definitely has a certain visual flair, especially in a scene that cleverly reworks the usual psychedelic trip. There’s another great moment Cole explains the nuances of rocking a party, and clever animation is used to show the music’s effect on the partygoers. With the aid of DP Brett Pawlak, who did masterful work two years ago on “Short Term 12”, the film gorgeously captures the laid back mood of the Valley; taking us everywhere from ritzy mansions to dreary back alley clubs.
Unfortunately, Cole’s aspirations never come across as fully formed, and any roadblocks in his way don’t seem to have much of an impact. He’s just that well-drawn of a character, this despite Efron doing his best to express Cole’s inner life. Efron’s Adonis good looks continue to be his greatest asset, but he’s developed into a capable leading man deserving of better material than this script provides. Bentley has the most to work with by far, as James comes across as the most deeply layered figure of the entire film. As the bitter, resentful, alcoholic James, Bentley never overplays a single moment even when the screenplay seems to really want him to. Instead, he captures James’ anger and frustration as an aging star in an evolving landscape catering to the young. Ratajowkski, in full-on pout mode, slinks and twirls from scene to scene revealing enough cleavage to distract you from her forgettable performance. In a small, under-written role in a meaningless subplot, Jon Bernthal is sadly wasted as a shady real estate magnate who puts the boys in a moral quandary.
Of course, an appreciation for electronica will have a serious impact on your enjoyment. The soundtrack pulses, the beats pump, and if that’s your thing then it won’t matter that “We Are Your Friends” doesn’t have much to say about finding one’s own voice, or much to say about anything at all.