Roughly 30 minutes into We Are Your Friends, world-renowned DJ and functional alcoholic James Reed (Wes Bentley) listens to a track by rookie dreamer Cole Carter (Zac Efron) and chastises him for trying too hard to sound like too many different things. This is ironic, because much like DJs borrow bits and pieces from other tracks, We Are Your Friends samples parts Wolf of Wall Street and Waking Life while taking the feminine high notes from Almost Famous and Garden State. Most obviously, the film lifts its baseline (bass line?) plot points from Soderbergh’s original Magic Mike, while swapping out “man-feelings” with “Millennial angst.” It doesn’t 100% work, but trying to be Magic Mike and failing is still a pretty noble achievement itself.
We Are Your Friends, named after a famous EDM track and/or its famous remix, follows Cole on his trek to become a famous party DJ. After catching the attention of James, Cole gains new inspiration and quickly moves through the ranks of the LA club scene, threatening to leave behind the small-time rave kid crew that were his friends when he was spinning for free drinks. As Cole gets closer to James, he also gets closer to James’ girlfriend/assistant Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), because the film needs to squeeze itself somewhat close to something considered a conflict. There’s honestly no story here, and the film spends so much time spinning its wheels that whenever plot development does occur, it feels jarring, coming out of nowhere. In many ways, the pacing is similar to an actual EDM track: It repeats the same beats over and over, gradually introducing new elements, and then finally fusing everything into a rewarding, if short, payoff.
The movie’s repetitive and sometimes dragging pacing is thematically appropriate because of its obsession with young existential ennui. Characters compare themselves to their more successful friends, talk about lack of opportunity, take morally compromising jobs, and ask themselves the film’s key phrase: “Are we ever going to be better than this?” It’s not exactly original and the paper-thin characterization pushes it a little closer to “pretty people with problems” territory than one would like. Despite this, the situations feel relatable and connect at least on some level, and it’s nice that We Are your Friends at least attempts to include a human element when this would have been an easy film to play by-the-numbers.
Most of what works stems from how well Efron and Bentley play off each other. Efron is a talented actor who has spent several years struggling to find a method that works for him. Here, he underplays Cole greatly, maintaining a constant forced aloofness that breaks only occasionally. This works very well and allows him to keep his emotional states buried below the surface until the exact moment he needs to wear them on his face. This is what makes the final unveiling of Cole’s big track work the way it does, it feels cathartic for us as audience members, and Efron shows the cleansing effect it has on Cole with every Macbook keystroke and press of a MIDI keyboard button. Bentley, meanwhile, seems to relish playing a self-loathing sell-out and strikes each line with the right amount of pretension and pomp.
We Are Your Friends gains another point in the humanity department with its intimate and unobtrusive cinematography. Journeyman cinematographer Brett Pawlack brings the same level of closeness to the film as he did in the excellent Short Term 12, keeping close to the subjects and alternating between the wide shots of increasingly large and Molly-addled crowds, awash in warm orange twilight (at all times of day). Pawlack and rookie director Max Joseph use this to create a backstage-pass sensation, and serves as a great foil against the bleak brightness of Cole’s San Fernando valley life.
We Are Your Friends doesn’t work on all beats at all times, but it is oddly endearing and makes a genuine effort to connect with its audience. Much like Cole’s meticulous mathematical strategy to get people on the dance floor, its main goal is to achieve mass empathy with the viewer. However, also like EDM music, it requires some sort of stimulative substance before it gets particularly interesting.
Liked This? Share It!