by Philip Price
“We Are Your Friends” is a movie accompanying a soundtrack rather than the other way around. It is a movie about a DJ and we all know how rough the plight of a DJ can be. The problem with the premise in general is that it does feel rather inconsequential in the wide range of stories to be told and it seems wasteful that a movie about a DJ gets such a wide release instead of something more substantial. And so, the question is: does this DJ tale use its opportunity to say something more? Unfortunately the answer is no. While the trailer for the film did in fact hint at something more-is the cost and the grind of the collegiate system worth the job it grants you afterwards that is largely utilized to pay back those student loans? The film hints it might not be if you do something worthwhile with that time, but Cole Carter (Zac Efron) and his friends aren't doing much besides melting away in the San Fernando Valley. Despite its rather hollow exteriors I was optimistic that the film might actually take the opportunity to explore a few existential themes that become prevalent for the first time in your early twenties, but it keeps in key with its hollow exteriors by being a hollow portrait of the sunshine state lifestyle. To say that is to say there isn't much to the film and again, unfortunately that is true. Director Max Joseph makes his narrative feature debut here and while he is keen on tapping into that younger audience he knows so well, at 33 this drama of young angst feels more manufactured than authentic. ”We Are Your Friends” is one of those movies about a group of friends who are in the midst of trying to accomplish their dreams and fulfill their aspirations, but feel stuck or even worse, know they don't have what it takes to make it out of their hometown. The thing about Cole though is that he's basically granted unprecedented access to a well-known DJ and all the resources he could ever need in order to flourish and yet there isn't enough drive there for him to take the obvious path.
Cole is the talent of his quartet of merry men though even he will admit he's not as talented or charismatic as he'd like to be. We also have Mason (Jonny Weston, who's agent is killing it right now) as Cole's seeming best friend and who he's lived with since he was fifteen. We never really learn what happened to Cole's parents, but a single line of dialogue leaves the mystery lingering and there's no issue with that. Mason though, is the guy in a group of friends who is always blowing his lid, always getting the rest into trouble and the one the others are always having to deal with. Mason wants to be a good friend about as much as he wants to be the center of attention himself, but he knows he doesn't have the ambition or the talent to go anywhere. He's scared and he probably somewhat pulls his friends down on purpose so he doesn't feel as bad about his own situation. Then there is Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez), the aspiring actor. Growing up on the other side of the Hollywood hills no doubt prompts a lot of expectation, but there seems to have always been something auspicious about Ollie and he is coming to terms with the idea he might never fulfill those expectations. Instead, Ollie has allowed for his side gig of selling drugs and promoting parties to overcome any larger goals. He has something of a mentor in Paige (Jon Bernthal) a local scam artist who paper works people in foreclosure out of their homes and who hires the boys to work for him full time so that they might actually maintain a steady cash flow. Lastly, there is Squirrel (Alex Shaffer) who plays the role of the sensitive one so you can guess where his character arc goes given this world of excess and indulgence. After one of their promoted parties where Cole spun a few records he runs into semi-famous DJ James Reed (Wes Bentley) who essentially takes him on as an apprentice with no questions asked. Reed also happens to be dating Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski) who Cole had hit on earlier in the night so you can guess where that is going as well.
Here's the thing about ”We Are Your Friends”-it's not terrible and it has some interesting things going on visually. It is a combination of an indie documentary and a glossy music video rolled into one that wears its hipster attitude like a badge of honor. It opens with a kind of free-wheeling attitude that symbolizes the youthful mentality that will be on display and it feels appropriately improvised and somewhat overly stylistic though it never acknowledges how cool it is trying to be. Joseph likes to paint the screen with text to reinforce dialogue and this is rather effective, especially when the circumstances are inherently looked at as insignificant in the first place. Joseph feels genuine in his attempts to convey what it is like to be a young person trying to break the mold in this day and age (you can start a blog, invent an app or sell things online) and moments that include every Vine star on the planet do well to reinforce this kind of hyper-speed, instant gratification culture we all live in. The problem is that none of these core characters are complex or interesting enough to hold our attention given things aren't really that bad for them. None of these guys are facing any kind of tangible struggle. More than anything, the films protagonists seem to only have to get out of their own way in order to make something of themselves. Instead of actual hardships, it is the desire to party their life away that stands in the way of both Ollie and Cole making something more of themselves. The savior of the film is actually Bentley who, as Reed, is as equally intriguing as he is a douche. It is the moments when Efron's Cole goes to visit his mentor and the two go into the studio and talk shop that the film is at its most intriguing. Were the film to focus more on the buried complexities of Efron's character and how he brings those out through music (which it finally begins to scratch near the end) then Joseph would have been able to come up with both an interesting story about a DJ and an interesting way of visually telling that story. Instead, we get a love triangle and a clichéd conclusion that does nothing but make one hope for the music to stop.
And so, this is not what one would call a substantial film as its main character has his big epiphany by listening to the actual world around him rather than continuing to have his head buried in his laptop and headphones. Of course, this is meant to be metaphorical as well, but it feels so cheap and easy that it's hard to take seriously. I mean, a movie about a DJ shouldn't be taken seriously in the first place, but ”We Are Your Friends” never aspires to be a comedy or a commentary on the ridiculous world of European white guys getting paid too much to stand in front of a crowd and play with their computers so what are we supposed to think? As the expected plot beats play out there is only so much that can distract us from the fact there isn't much story here at all. The love triangle aspect only lasts for so long and ends with Bentley calling Cole, "Irreparable!" only to give him his big shot twenty minutes down the line. It is inevitable that Ratajkowski's Sophie and Efron's Cole will end up together so don't act surprised when that happens and finally, it shouldn't be a surprise that not only does Cole get his big break, get the girl, but that he also takes the high road in the subplot concerning Bernthal's asshole character who only cares about himself. Again, this guy gets everything he ever wanted without having to really work for it. Cole just has to show up and put in enough effort to get a pass and so when the climax comes where he's genuinely proud of something he created it's a feeling of, "that's great, but it's no underdog story," which is what Joseph and his co-writer Meaghan Oppenheimer are trying to sell us. The emotional peaks of the film are meant to be felt through the music (there's admittedly a cool breakdown of the science of getting a crowd to dance that stands out) and that these feelings and emotions come to fruition through song are intended to make them feel all the more raw, but the whole time all I could think of was this. There's an idea that this film encapsulates the small moment of struggle before the meteoric rise, but some part of me can't help but think what we see here is the best these characters will ever be.