Cole Carter (Zac Efron, At Any Price) is a 23-year-old DJ who shares a San Fernando Valley apartment with his best friend Mason (Jonny Weston, John Dies at the End). Cole dreams of becoming an EDM sensation – the next Skrillex or Diplo or deadmau5 – but for now, he's just trying to snag late-night spots at local night clubs and attempting to convince moderately successful local artists like James Reed (Wes Bentley, Knight of Cups) to listen to his tracks. When he's not performing, he and Mason are usually hanging out with their pals Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez, Red Riding Hood) and Squirrel (Alex Shaffer, Win Win). Every aspiring DJ needs a friend named Squirrel.
We Are Your Friends details a fairly predictable rags-to-riches arc (with some equally predictable setbacks along the way), but there's a certain dopey charm in the way it takes Cole's First World Problem-esque struggles so very seriously. This is a movie about an angst-filled 23-year-old that often feels like it was made by an angst-filled 23-year-old; a dance music movie that plays more like a moody singer-songwriter LP. It gazes deep in young Mr. Efron's sad, soulful eyes and finds him silently speaking for millions of American millennials: “Will I ever be a superstar?”
According to Cole, the only things you need to find stardom in the modern music world are a laptop, some basic musical skills and one great song. He has the first two, but the third has proven elusive. When James takes a listen to Cole's most recent stab at a hit single, he identifies the problem: “You're trying to be too many things at once,” he says. In other words, Cole needs to stop trying to be every other successful artist and just be himself (while working within the template of success set by those other artists, naturally).
It'll be a while before Cole figures out his musical identity (an unintentionally hilarious climax finds him piecing together an EDM jam by employing sound effects that are deeply meaningful to him on a personal level... good thing he records pretty much every key moment of his life), but right from the start, it's obvious that he knows how to work a crowd. In one scene, Cole explains the science behind successful DJ work, detailing the way a throbbing bass rhythm affects the “sexy zone” of the human body, the way you can trigger a rave by zeroing in on a single willing partygoer and the subtle musical things you have to do to make the audience respond precisely the way you want them to. It's not particularly convincing (nor is the film's portrait of PCP-induced hallucinations, which mostly amount to everyone turning into friendly-looking animated characters), but the film nonetheless presents this material with all the confidence of Einstein explaining the theory of relativity.
There's also a romance of sorts, as Cole meets the lovely Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski, Gone Girl) at a nightclub and makes a pass at her. She rejects him, but he runs into her again when he crashes at James' house for the night: turns out Sophie is James' girlfriend. Things unfold as you might expect them to from there, as Cole, Sophie and James find themselves trapped in a formulaic love triangle. Ratajkowski's performance is curiously one-note: she has the same magazine-ready “come hither” expression on her face no matter what she's doing, though it's admittedly pretty effective when she's actually telling Cole to come hither. Also formulaic: the subplot involving shifty realtor Paige Morrell (Jon Bernthal, The Walking Dead), who lures Cole and his friends into some shady business schemes (Paige is the kind of guy who shows up early in the first act, pays for everyone's breakfast and says, “Let me know if you ever want to make some real money”).
We Are Your Friends may be dumb and predictable, but it's still oddly likable. Maybe it's the earnest-but-energetic direction from Max Joseph (making his feature film debut), maybe it's Efron's enjoyably committed performance (consistently better than the script he's been given to work with) or maybe it's the way the film floats along on a feel-good stream of catchy electronic rhythms, but somehow this thing kinda works. You roll your eyes at it, but you catch yourself smiling at the same time.
We Are Your Friends
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 96 minutes
Release Year: 2015