Zac Efron is the fresh-faced young mixmaster at the center of Max Joseph's brashly entertaining but earnestly predictable EDM soap opera.
At long last, fans of Electronic Dance Music have a movie to call their own — a moving and authentic portrait of the artist as a young DJ, struggling to find himself in that tricky gray zone where personal and professional desires converge. But enough about Mia Hansen-Love’s “Eden.” For viewers who prefer their coming-of-age stories told in broad, believe-in-yourself brushstrokes, say hello to “We Are Your Friends,” a brashly entertaining, none-too-persuasive tale of a talented 23-year-old musician from the San Fernando Valley trying to penetrate the glittering upper echelons of Hollywood nightlife. Striving to capture a definitive screenshot of millennial angst, Max Joseph’s formally creative, dramatically conventional directing debut probably won’t earn raves from EDM devotees, particularly those who reject the notion of Zac Efron as their head-banging Hollywood poster boy. Still, there’s no denying that the star’s hard-to-resist appeal will draw mainstream eyes and ears to a picture that would rather spin an accessible underdog yarn than tap into the more resonant specifics of its milieu.
As co-host, cameraman and co-producer of MTV’s “Catfish” reality series (and a director of numerous commercials, musicvideos and viral shorts), the 33-year-old Joseph was a smart choice to helm an up-to-the-minute feature film about the creative and professional pursuits of young people in an ever more competitive digital era. Working from his own screenplay (co-written with Meaghan Oppenheimer, from a story by exec producer Richard Silverman), Joseph establishes a punchy, direct-address style at the outset, using voiceover narration and onscreen text to give us a wry welcome to the San Fernando Valley — that flat, unenticing stretch of Los Angeles County famed for its porn shoots, vapid blondes and unbeatable sushi. It may be situated mere miles north of Hollywood, but it might as well be several worlds away where a kid on the bottom rung like Cole (Efron) is concerned.
Along with his best friends — aspiring actor Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez), get-rich-quick dreamer Mason (Jonny Weston) and shy tagalong Squirrel (Alex Shaffer) — Cole longs to escape the Valley, with its dried-up lawns and empty swimming pools, and break into the biz in a big way. The closest these guys can get, at least initially, is a popular Hollywood rave called Social, the so-called “best dance party in L.A.,” where they work as low-level promoters. It’s here that Cole has his fateful first encounter with James Reed (Wes Bentley, excellent), a wealthy, well-traveled DJ with a perpetual air of liquor and disillusionment. “He used to be good,” Cole privately notes. “I think now he just gives the people what they want.” It’s a shrewd enough observation, even if it sets up a defense of uncompromising artistic integrity that the movie doesn’t quite have the ability or nerve to follow through on.
The script’s most sincere yet dubious-sounding line is Cole’s early declaration that, to succeed as a DJ, “all you need is a laptop, some talent and one track.” Still, that one track is promising enough to earn him an extended audience with James, who gives him some pointers on zeroing in on his own voice, and even lets him DJ a party at his glassy Brentwood estate. But as the two grow closer, boozing and mixing music together in preparation for a gig at a summer music festival, Cole’s eye unsurprisingly begins to wander in the direction of James’ gorgeous girlfriend/personal assistant, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski). In a movie that doesn’t exactly challenge the bro-heavy demographics of EDM culture (or, for that matter, address the charges of sexism that have dogged it in recent years), Sophie emerges as less a character than a catalyst, and Ratajkowski, whom sharp-eyed viewers will remember as Ben Affleck’s mistress in “Gone Girl,” has been cast along similar lines here. Her job (apart from modeling a series of unfailingly lovely outfits designed by Christie Wittenborn) is to ensure that James and Cole’s friendship, like so many cinematic mentor-student relationships before it, will soon turn sour with lust and betrayal.
As Cole and James sort out their issues while Sophie smolders from the sidelines, “We Are Your Friends” increasingly plays like a synth-heavy soap opera (“As the Table Turns,” anyone?) that doesn’t so much delve into the EDM phenomenon so much as scan it for easy dramatic hooks and emotional entry points. For all its techno beats and occasional stylistic departures, the story has been composed in a vivid yet familiar key of cornball melodrama — from the regular shots of Cole stuffing wads of cash into an Adidas shoebox under his bed, to the tragic development that arrives more than halfway through, perhaps in an attempt to bolster Efron’s claim that the movie is a “Saturday Night Fever” for our times. By that point, it’s clear that “We Are Your Friends” isn’t content to be the story of a young climber; it has bigger, more epochal fish to fry. But if Joseph’s movie is meant to be some sort of millennial statement, it’s one that feels awfully predictable and secondhand, especially when compared with the aforementioned “Eden,” a richly immersive, decades-spanning epic that unfolds against Paris’ garage-rock scene.
Set to an altogether more familiar narrative rhythm, “We Are Your Friends” holds up a sympathetic yet simplistic selfie-cam to a restless contemporary youth culture that doesn’t know what to do with itself. The young men we see have learned to be technologically savvy and relentlessly self-promoting, to seek out innovation in a world of imitators, and to look beyond the traditional avenues of a college education followed by gainful, entry-level employment. To the film’s credit, it’s smart enough to acknowledge the soullessness of some of the alternatives, as we observe when Cole and his buddies land lucrative day jobs at a mortgage company run by the unscrupulous Paige (Jon Bernthal). The subsequent cold-calling scenes are not the only ones here that suggest a younger-skewing remix of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” albeit one whose protagonist repeatedly questions the morality of cashing in on other people’s misery.
In equally earnest fashion, Cole eventually realizes the need to create his own authentic sound, and his epiphany will strike you as either an inspiring testament to DIY artistry or an example of individualism at its most embarrassingly solipsistic. Still, it’s hard to scoff too long or too hard at Efron, an infernally watchable screen presence who has never needed a drum machine to make your heart throb, and whose effortless eye-kandi presence here has just the right level of dramatic reverb. He and Bentley achieve a believable rapport — by turns realistically tetchy and mutually protective — and you long for their characters to veer away from the conventional trappings of rivalry and conflict, and instead to find a tougher, less tidy emotional core.
What’s missing here is not just a more out-of-the-box approach to narrative, but a more adventurous sense of style. To be sure, there are visual and sonic fillips aplenty: One of the movie’s most intoxicating moments, when Cole and James trip out at a gallery party (with the real-life DJ duo Posso spinning in the background), is rendered in a surreal animated sequence that recalls the pseudo-rotoscoped contours of “Waking Life.” On a subtler level, d.p. Brett Pawlak nicely exploits the contrast between the Valley’s sun-blasted suburbs and Hollywood’s chic nighttime enclaves, and he serves up a moody, Instagram-ready aesthetic with his choices of color, lighting and framing (working in concert with the staccato rhythms of Terel Gibson and David Diliberto’s editing).
Segal, the stage name of electronic musician Matthew Simpson (who scored TV’s “Skins”), composed the pulsating main score, abetted by a steady, wide-ranging flow of pop, trap, hip-hop, EDM and other selections supervised by Randall Poster. But for all the considerable musical talent on display, the most significant lapse of “We Are Your Friends” — and it’s less a failure of taste or technique than of simple storytelling imagination — is that its signature sound never really takes hold of your nervous system. A climactic festival performance notwithstanding, the surest demonstration of Cole’s talent and passion would be a picture that, rather than settling for an occasional contact high, really hard-wired us into the power of music that feels simultaneously hand-crafted and machine-made. “We Are Your Friends” has its heart in the right place, and it’s shrewd and cuddly enough to get a few likes. But it would be an infinitely better movie if it sustained the sort of trancelike sonic ecstasy that turns fans into fanatics.