We Are Your Friends (2015) / Drama-Romance

MPAA Rated: R for language throughout, drug use, sexual content and some nudity
Running Time: 96 min.

Cast: Zac Efron, Wes Bentley, Emily Ratajkowski, Jonny Weston, Shiloh Fernandez, Alex Shaffer, Jon Bernthal
Director: Max Joseph
Screenplay: Max Joseph, Meaghan Oppenheimer

Review published August 28, 2015

Set in the San Fernando Valley, California -- the hot, generally less desirable section of L.A, over the Hollywood Hills where the porn industry, strip malls, sushi houses, and more affordable housing exists for Los Angelinos -- We Are Your Friends (the title seems inspired by the song of the same name by the French electronic music duo Justice featured in the film) follow four twenty-something male friends  looking for nothing all that serious except a way to make a quick buck and bed as many of the local beauties as possible.  Zac Efron (Neighbors, That Awkward Moment) stars as Cole Carter, a talented aspiring DJ who has found little success except to rock the house at parties and clubs in the 818, where he and his buds end up playing mostly for free drinks and random hook-ups. 

Cole's looking to make that one awesome song that he's sure will propel him into a full-fledged, globe-hopping career in the EDM (Electronic Dance Music) industry.  He draws inspiration when he meets James Reed (Bentley, Final Girl), a superstar DJ who has already lived the life Cole has always dreamed of, from his success on the turntables, his travels, his wealth, and even his superhot personal assistant/girlfriend, Sophie (Ratajkowski, Gone Girl).  James does some semi-mentoring of the lad to get him to see beyond his formulaic tracks, but tension soon forms when Cole thinks James is selling out his success with lack of vision and stability in his life, and his love.

Seems once in a generation we get a movie where living the dream of making it to the top of a profession that doesn't really hold a lot of merit otherwise becomes a life passion for someone.  Cole wants to be the best DJ in the country the way Brian Flanagan wanted to be the best bartender ever in Cocktail, or Tony Manero wanting to be the envy of everyone's eye on the dance floor in Saturday Night Fever, or Vincent Lauria to the pool hall in that other Tom Cruise movie, The Color of Money -- films that many older viewers will be reminded of after checking out the same formula with We Are Your Friends.  Of course, most of the demographic of this 2015 film will not be so clued in on this, just seeing it as a fresh take of someone following a subculture passion everyone around them says will never amount to anything, and then becoming great at it, as life begins to fall as in place as their skill set becomes legendary.

That's not to say that "Catfish" co-host and first-time feature filmmaker Max Joseph's We Are Your Friends doesn't have some original ideas of its own in this exploration into Millennial angst, a term he even scripts as a line in the film.  Most of the best moments of the movie come from our exposure to the life and times of a DJ, from the tech involved, to the connection he makes with his audience, to his philosophy on how to seduce a crowd into a frenzy, and ultimately, what he can offer to a highly competitive (and often derivative) form of music that can elevate his tracks to a higher level of consciousness -- the nirvana for every beat-master to strive for.

Unfortunately, scenes that stray from this intimate look at the craft of DJ'ing are only standard fare at best, and overdone at their worst, including a lengthy subplot involving the young men getting involved in a call center for a shady real estate mortgage operation to try to make a quick buck.  The love triangle that forms is nothing new in the world of young drama, with the good guy always seeming to nab the girl who is out of his league when it's shown that her current boyfriend is a self-centered jerk who doesn't respect her.  Interestingly, though she seems to have it all together, Sophie is no different than the others, dropping out of college and a career path because it's just easier in Los Angeles to find a guy with wealth who'll want a trophy girlfriend. The film overreaches in its dramatic intentions by adding death to the mix, something the wafer-thin premise just can't support the weight of, as presented, and reminding us that, at its core, this "Entourage"-esque film about the hollow lives of Hollywood dreamers is, in itself, hollow and wooden. 

But, really, that's the point.  To show that the path to sticking with your bros through thick and thin and by chasing pure money and tail instead of your dreams will only lead to unhappiness.  School is a waste of time, or so they say.  They just think they need to invent an app, start a blog, or sell stuff online to make millions, but, even if it were that easy, we never see them even try to do that.  Sophie is at least wise enough to know that school is only a waste of time if you're not wasting the time you could have spent going to school.  Some will likely see the film as a version of "Entourage", but I would offer that Joseph isn't really celebrating the lifestyle of four versions of a San Fernando Valley millennial, but rather, is commenting on the lack of ambition and structure that keeps them from even having a dream, much less pursuing one. 

Perhaps that's also why the movie feels on point when Cole and his drive to make that perfect track provides more of interest; the life choices of his slacker friends offer little sustenance or meaning, so we naturally aren't desirous of seeing more of them, because they'll never amount to anything without doing something underhanded or find a way to figure out what their 'life kung fu' is.    When one of them asks, "Are we ever going to be better than this?", it becomes the mantra of the movie's climax, as the literal sound of money is attached with a yearning to be something more, which Cole uses to inspire him to, ultimately, be better than he had been.

Despite its age-old narrative underneath, there are some chances that Joseph takes with the material that does elevate it from time to time, enough to garner a recommendation, with admitted reservations.  First, Joseph does manage to effectively marry his directorial style to the rhythm of the music in ways that show a great talent with showcasing the allure of EDM, pushing the tempo of the editing to the beat and mixing the summer-jam tone of each music piece with that of the sun-drenched cinematography from Short Term 12's Brett Pawlak.  It's not exactly an indie film, but it does have an effectively hip and grungy vibe to fake the funk well when it needs to.  Also nice is the addition of animation and some effects to some scenes, such as a trippy dip into a art-gallery cartoon world when Cole unwittingly encounters PCP for the first time, or Cole's scientific thesis on how to get the crowd moving to his beat using bass, rhythm and escalating beats per minute to simulate a runner's high, complete with graphic design-infused illustrations and CG. 

It may seem like a clichéd coming-of-age story with a new, gloss yfinish for another generation, but it should work for the crowd for which it's intended, namely, younger viewers who've not seen their share of similar movie, and even some adults who still have some growing up to do.  The movie like the music, might seem vapid, derivative and synthetic if you're not in tune with it, but there are ways Joseph captures a good rhythm and lets us ride along to its energy when the style feels honest, inspired and organic.

Qwipster's rating:

©2015 Vince Leo