We Are Your Friends is a beautifully absurd millennial angst fantasy, as shallow yet infectiously catchy as an EDM song.
We Are Your Friends follows twenty-something aspiring EDM DJ Cole Carter (Zac Effron), who roams Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley on a beat-loop of club gigs, parties and strip mall sushi joint feasts with his three boys, Mason (Jonny Weston), Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez) and Squirrel (Alex Shaffer). That beat changes when Cole runs into world-famous EDM DJ James (Wes Bentley); after some good hearty partying, the two strike up a friendly mentorship bond, as James tries to steer Cole toward the sounds that will create his own unique voice as a musician.
However, Cole’s vibe isn’t just with James – it’s arguably stronger with James’ girl, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), a kindred lost spirit just trying to find her path in life. As a big EDM festival draws near (and a big breakout opportunity along with it) the bonds Cole has with his friends, mentor, and that forbidden girl threaten to pull him apart – just when he needs everything to flow together harmoniously into that one sick beat that will change his life.
The debut feature film from Max Joseph, We Are Your Friends is a beautifully absurd millennial angst fantasy, as shallow yet infectiously catchy as an EDM song.
Even with two additional writers helping Joseph with the script, We Are Your Friends turns out to be a narrative mess that, ironically enough, is lost in the search for its own voice, tone, and general identity, without ever finding it. The very world of the film is absurdly tailored to the point of hyper-reality, with the closest parental figure left faceless just off frame, and the world of Los Angeles basically cut down into a myopic vision of… well, basically the sort of crowd you’d expect to see at an EDM festival.
What saves the film from its mess of a screenplay (and overall concept, really) is the sheer sense of fun and imagination Joseph displays in his directing, and the charisma of the cast. On the directorial front, Joseph packs in a handful of visual tricks (many of them recycled from the ’80s, admittedly) in order to create sequences that take concepts of electronic music, dance parties, or drug-induced wonder, and present them in highly creative and entertaining ways onscreen. Otherwise, he demonstrates a keen sense of when to alternate between wide shot blocking and framing, and guerilla-style handheld filming, following the kids through their frenetic world and lifestyle. Party or large concert scenes are also intoxicatingly vibrant; yet, cinematographer Brett Pawlak (Short Term 12) keeps a working class grit on them to the point that the sweat is almost palpable.
If this movie is any measure, Joseph is a much more advanced cinematic storyteller than he is a narrative one, as the episodic and aimlessly plodding feel of the story nonetheless results in memorable individual scenes and sequences, even though the connective tissue between them is pretty tenuous. Still, the hilariously ridiculous platitudes that arrive by the time of Cole’s climatic voice-over narration are slightly balanced by a few sporadic gems of dialogue or banter that will definitely stand out in mind.
Zac Efron is a charming and likable leading man – which is fortunate, because Cole is a vaguely shaped character at best, and a grossly undercooked protagonist, at worst. There’s a lot of implication surrounding Cole (off-hand references to him being an orphan, a dropout, etc… #NBD), but very little explanation that feeds into developing the narrative or its themes. Cole is essentially a blank slate of existential dilemma (if a life of chasing DJ dreams around working-class suburbia can be called that), and instead of adding any meaningful filling, the film posits laughable ideas like the key to achieving life-changing success is as trivial as having your cell phone run out of battery at a key moment.
The boys in Cole’s crew are actually tolerable “bro” archetypes, with Jonny Weston’s Mason being a scene-stealing standout. Meanwhile, Wes Bentley’s cynical boozing veteran DJ all but owns his portion, arguably creating the most nuanced and interesting character in the film. Model-turned-actress Emily Ratajkowski is handed the job of once again playing the “forbidden fruit lover” role (see also: Gone Girl, Entourage), only this time she’s forced to play it as a character who is absurd from just about every angle that isn’t on her gorgeous face. Watching scenes of her and Efron trying to bond over their so-called life hardships and millennial angst is hilariously meta, but cinematically regrettable as an attempt at serious drama.
Like that kid at the rave who’s had way too much molly by the time his favorite beat comes on, We Are Your Friends just goes for it – all heart and no mind – totally unaware (or uncaring) about how ridiculous it may look. And, like watching that same brave but drug-addled soul get down, it all looks entertaining in the moment until you step back to examine what you’re really seeing; then it just seems kind of messy, and silly, and even a bit sad. But dammit if you can’t turn away, until the wild dance finally fizzles out into a simple plodding beat, soon to be forgotten. (There’s a EDM joke in there somewhere, for anyone who wants to dig for it…)
We Are Your Friends is 96 minutes long, and is Rated R for language throughout, drug use, sexual content and some nudity.
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