We Are Your Friends, Max Joseph’s feature film directorial debut, disguises the millennial struggle and desire for quick success at a young age as a 23-year-old DJ’s quest to break into EDM. The narrative, which depicts four young guys’ desire to escape the San Fernando Valley, could have been easily applicable to any millennial’s desire to become successful rapidly, but perhaps, the ability to quickly prosper is most evident in DJs striving to breakthrough. As Cole Carter (Zac Efron) offers, “If you’re a DJ, all you need is a laptop, some talent, and one track.”
What may appear like an easy path, though, is ultimately not a journey that is as smooth as Cole would hope for it to be. Starring Zac Efron and Emily Ratajkowski, We Are Your Friends explores the struggle between chasing after one’s dreams vs. picking the route that offers more immediate rewards, details the precarious nature of life, depicts the millennial pressure to achieve early greatness, and displays the difficulty in wanting to evade a place that seems to be holding one back.
We Are Your Friends predominantly revolves around Cole Carter (Efron), a driven and effortlessly charming aspiring DJ, who is struggling to break into the oversaturated market. The challenge, though, is not one solely Cole faces, as his core group of guy friends are too facing the same difficulties in obtaining instant success while entrapped in the San Fernando Valley (though, they are immensely protective of it, defending the Valley for having the best sushi). The group of party promoters who bask in the L.A. nightlife scene are completed by the irascible and fast-talking, but fiercely loyal Mason (Jonny Weston), the drug-dealing, hopeful actor Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez), and the timid, yet forthright Squirrel (Alex Shaffer). The group of guys band together to find their individual successes, until Cole opens up for the older, charismatic DJ James Reed (Wes Bentley). Following their sets, Cole fortuitously encounters James outside of the nightclub and is soon, after a night of partying and PCP usage, taken under his wing.
With James’ guidance and studio access, Cole soon realizes that his music lacks originality and just seems like a mixture of his influences. Up until meeting the humorous, cock-sure James, Cole solely relied on samples and using the same instrumentation plug-ins that every other aspiring DJ with access to a computer utilizes. However, Cole is pushed to hone his craft and define his artistry. As James tells him, “Any successful artist, they have this moment where they stop being an admirer and they find their signature.”
James and Cole’s dynamic, no matter how complicated it gets — much due to the tumultuous relationship between James and his girlfriend Sophie (Ratajkowski) — is crucial for Cole’s career. James constantly pushes Cole out of his comfort zone. It’s evident just based on their first moments spending time together, both when James tells Cole the correct cigarette to be smoking and at the party James invites Cole to. At the party, James coaxes Cole into experimenting with PCP, which sets up a masterfully animated sequence captivated by bold, vivacious colors, where viewers experience Cole’s trip. The modernly psychedelic animation transitions from a smooth, lingering depiction of the trip to quick, real-time flashes of the night.
In his feature film directorial debut, Max Joseph hasn’t failed to define his signature. Joseph captured a film and created a screenplay that feels as organic as the documentaries he has produced, but also maintains a level of glossiness that speaks to it being a feature. Much accredited to the screenplay, We Are Your Friends also succeeds in its accurate portrayal of what it takes to be a producer — the meticulous nature of finding that exact sound, the intricate timing, and its unequivocally detail-oriented nature.
Efron charmingly conveys Cole’s sense of frustration and his hunger to succeed (and, of course, the film includes a handful of scenes where Cole is shown shirtless, most likely for the sake of Efron being shirtless). Bentley delivers the film’s strongest performance with a balance of arrogance, hot-headedness and genuine desire to see Cole succeed. Taking on the role of the free-spirited girl-in-the-middle, Ratajkowski gives a performance that makes the audience sympathize with Sophie’s search for more.
However, We Are Your Friends lessens due to its amount of plots. While some aspects are critical for understanding the characters’ predicaments, the film frequently has too much going on, dragging at times because of this. As well, the movie’s quality is lessened much more by its clichés. Sophie and Cole’s hooking up was of no surprise — completely expected an anticipated, as well as Cole’s eventual locking-in of finding his sound and listening to what the world’s been telling him. The movie’s arc isn’t something drastically unfamiliar (rather, it is more than predictable) — the protagonist finding himself, but We Are Your Friends just does so through a more timely subject matter.
Nonetheless, We Are Your Friends is a testament to the challenges millennials face today: the pressure to achieve success quickly, but in doing so, relinquishing chasing after their dreams. The group of guys, who are textbook hustlers, is cajoled into taking a job as the middlemen between families facing foreclosure and the banks, just to escape the valley, despite not necessarily wanting those jobs. Sophie, the forthright girlfriend of James, was a student at Stanford University, but is living with her DJing boyfriend and working as his assistant. Life hasn’t necessarily panned out the way the millennials hoped it would — they chase after millionaire success, hope to escape the Valley that has stifled their dreams, but still bask in the glee of the L.A. nightlife scene and EDM music festivals.
But, as James bluntly tells Cole, “You aren’t a real person until you’re 27.”