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Electronic dance music, or EDM, may induce spasms of loathing in many, but it seems to be having a bit of a moment at the movies. In June, the French house movement was the backdrop for Eden, Mia Hansen-Love’s gorgeous ode to pulsing Parisian nights and fraying dreams. Now, club music is front and center in the less artful but surprisingly winning We Are Your Friends, starring Zac Efron as a San Fernando Valley DJ striving to break into the Hollywood scene.
With its bro-y banter, gyrating bodies and soundtrack of melodic hooks set to skipping, skittering beats, the movie will not be to everyone’s taste. In fact, your response may be directly determined by your tolerance for the music, as well as your willingness to spend time with a bunch of likeable but not very bright dudes smoking spliffs and trying to hustle up some cash.
We Are Your Friends is predictable, sometimes tacky, but the energy is unflagging, the eye candy plentiful and writer-director Max Joseph (making his feature debut after hosting MTV’s Catfish) brings sincerity and a skillfully modulated sweetness to the material. Don’t be shocked if the movie steamrolls past your defenses — unless you’re an EDM aficionado, in which case you’ll surely find reason to roll your eyes.
The film opens with protagonist Cole (Efron) and his crew of Valley boys (Jonny Weston, Shiloh Fernandez and Alex Shaffer) cruising college campuses as party promoters. That night, at a club, Cole shares a joint with thirtyish DJ James (Wes Bentley), unaware that the woman he was hitting on minutes ago, a leggy Stanford dropout named Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), is James’ girlfriend.
Soon enough, Joseph and co-screenwriters Meaghan Oppenheimer and Richard Silverman are spinning that old Dickensian tale: naïve, working-class Cole, under the wing of worldly, wealthy new mentor James, is ushered into the EDM in-crowd and promptly falls for Sophie. The latter development climaxes, for lack of a better word, when Cole and Sophie take ecstasy in Vegas, frolicking around as if in a Carly Rae Jepsen video. (Another would-be mentor figure, a real estate swindler played by Jon Bernthal, emerges in an undercooked subplot that serves mainly to spur Cole’s third-act moral awakening.)
In many ways, We Are Your Friends is what you expect it to be. The camera shakes, swerves and ogles; editor Terel Gibson’s cuts come fast and furious; there are flashy graphics, as well as some trite, Trainspotting-lite voiceover by Efron, key phrases of which burst onto the screen in capital letters — just in case you didn’t, you know, get the gist. The whole thing occasionally feels like the cinematic equivalent of a dog licking your face, begging you to come and play.
But if Joseph lays the ebullience on thick, he maintains an appealing lightness of touch and tone when it comes to his themes and characters; he never bludgeons us with the story’s subtext of economic anxiety, and even an unnecessary melodramatic twist in the final stretch is handled delicately.
And while this vision of a DJ’s days and nights has an undeniable Hollywood sheen (for all his supposed passion and drive, Cole doesn’t seem to work very hard at his craft), the director actually attempts to capture the creative process — a challenge that has stymied stronger filmmakers. The result can be a bit on the nose: When Cole notices Sophie fiddling with the zipper on her sweater, we know the sound will end up in one of his tracks. But the movie’s efforts to get inside its protagonist’s head sometimes pay off — as in a sequence that finds Cole and James high on PCP at a gallery opening. As Cole looks around, the paintings spring to life, spilling out beyond their frames and overtaking the dance floor in a blast of animation. The effect is goofy, but euphoric.
Ditto the scene in which Cole explains to Sophie how a DJ gets a crowd going from behind a turntable, his monologue illustrated by flashes of dance footage, diagrams of bodies and neon-tinged x-ray images of thumping hearts. We Are Your Friends is full of such moments that set you up for an epic cringe only to win you over with good-natured bravado; the intersection of brashness and earnestness is the movie’s sweet spot.
Refreshingly, too, the film is not afraid to tweak the millenials that are its target audience: when Cole makes one of his breathless aspirational mini-declarations, James retorts, “You just sounded like such an asshole; all that was missing was the hashtag.” Bentley’s withering delivery of that line, along with his cat-that-ate-the-canary grin, is reason enough to see We Are Your Friends, which is at its sharpest and most knowing when he’s onscreen. Meanwhile, Ratajkowski (who appeared in Robin Thicke’s infamous “Blurred Lines” video before snagging a small part in Gone Girl) initially comes off like another starlet who gives good pout, but her mix of aloofness and melancholy grows on you — enough to hope someone writes her a richer role soon.
That brings us to Efron, who has overcome distractingly dreamy looks and that sticky High School Musical stigma to become a credible leading man — with none of the convulsive Method fussiness of some of his peers — and an asset to most of his projects (from auteur-driven works like Richard Linkater’s Me and Orson Welles, Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy and Rahmin Bahrani’s At Any Price to mainstream fare like Hairspray and Neighbors). Efron moves and speaks with the easy grace of the beautiful, but there’s a naturalness, a lack of vanity or self-consciousness, to his acting. In We Are Your Friends, he underplays to perfection, putting us on Cole’s side without pandering.
DP Brett Pawlak (Short Term 12) skillfully captures a range of SoCal locales, from the dingy to the lush, while the effectively deployed soundtrack features a variety of EDM artists (including French electro duo Justice, responsible, along with English band Simian, for the eponymous track).
Even with its irritations and limitations, Joseph’s portrayal of this milieu is marked, above all, by its vividness and empathy. These characters’ lifestyle may come with unsavory trappings — namely drugs and shady money-making schemes — but there’s an essential innocence to their revelry and an integrity to their determination to enjoy life and define success on their own terms. We Are Your Friends is that increasingly rare thing: a genuine feel-good movie.
Production companies: Polygram Filmed Entertainment, StudioCanal, Working Title Films
Director: Max Joseph
Writers: Max Joseph, Meaghan Oppenheimer, Richard Silverman (story)
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Liz Chasin
Executive producers: Richard Silverman, Olivier Courson, Ron Halpern, Nathan Kelly
Director of photography: Brett Pawlak
Production designer: Maya Sigel
Editors: Terel Gibson, David Diliberto
Costume designer: Christie Wittenborn
Casting: Nicole Daniels, Courtney Sheinin
Rated R, 96 minutes
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