In Max Joseph’s feature film directorial debut “We Are Your Friends,” Zac Efron (“Neighbors,” 2014) plays struggling DJ Cole Carter, who’s on the lookout for his ticket to fame. In search for inspiration, he ends up bumping into cynical DJ veteran James Reed (Wes Bentley; “Interstellar,” 2014), who takes a liking to him decides to become his mentor. What Cole didn’t count on was to fall for James’s assistant/girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski, “Gone Girl,” 2014).
The plot itself ain’t no great shakes; Richard Silverman’s story is a cut-and-dry mix of a coming-of-age journey, an underdog movie and a love triangle. Here’s the thing though: there’s a lot to love. Joseph’s vision seems crystal clear, both as a director and a co-screenwriter. It’s clear he knew exactly how the movie needed to look: a mixture of raw grit and hyperrealist pop, garnished with a generous bit of oomph. “We Are Your Friends” makes use of an assortment of visual narrative devices, be it (possibly?) rotoscoped animation or motion graphics composites, delivering an end result that’s snazzy and delicious from a technical filmmaking standpoint.
The animated sequence in question—in which its primary subjects Cole and James are high as a kite and on a trip—is one of the film’s more memorable scenes, and seamlessly transition from live action. Yes, it’s very showy, but because of how brilliantly executed it is, it deserves its space to flex. The rest of the film ain’t half bad looking; cinematographer Brett Pawlak (“Short Term 12,” 2013) uses his trademark handheld bite to add to the deliberate imperfection. While some of the moving camerawork feels immersion-breaking as a result of technical inconsistencies—a slower sensor readout creating rolling shutter artifacts, yada-yada—it’s not an overall distraction.
Possibly the most glaring issue about “We Are Your Friends” is that it feels like it oversimplifies digital music production to make it seem more appealing. Don’t get me wrong; romanticizing the process isn’t a bad thing at all, especially if it comes from an artist’s perspective. But when you telegraph the optics of deejaying to sound like it’s as simple as having a laptop and a turntable, you’re not necessarily giving the larger process its due. To Joesph’s credit, the film addresses its reductive mentality and approaches production and mixing as a core component of creating a hit single for your set. The problem is that the vibe was already set, so any self-aware exploration suffers the risk of feeling self-contradictory and confusing.
You’d be forgiven for forgetting all of that though. Packed to the brim with charming sincerity and excellent turns from its cast, the movie’s got a lot going for it. Efron and Ratajkowski are excellent, with the former particularly giving a positively grown-up performance that’s both dynamic and earnest. He makes Cole feel like an imperfect, but genuinely likable character you want to root for. Ratajkowski, for her part, is surprisingly fantastic. The confidence, charm and nuance she adds to her character is only complemented by the crackling chemistry she shares with Efron through the film. And then there’s Wes Bentley, who is pitch-perfect as the disinterested, worn out industry veteran, adding a sense of humanity to the ‘alcoholic former star’ trope.
The supporting cast boasts standouts like Jon Bernthal (“Fury,” 2014), Shiloh Fernandez (“Evil Dead,” 2013), and Alex Shaffer (“Win Win,” 2011), all of whom are criminally underutilized. Jonny Weston plays to the gallery, but his performance is undercut by a character who’s written like a broken record. The film is also packed to the brim with cameos—notable among them being Swedish record producer and DJ Alesso and multi-platform content creator and actor King Bach—but they’re more set dressing than key roles.
The biggest star of the film? Its music supervisor, Randall Poster (“Boyhood,” 2014). Compiling an eclectic, cutting-edge soundtrack that features singles and remixes from artists like Years & Years, Tyga, Pete Tong, and Pusha T, and some excellent original electronic pieces by Justice-Simian and Pyramid, Poster creates a chart-busting cornucopia of sounds that form the heart and soul of “We Are Your Friends.” The great thing about the soundtrack, and possibly its secret USP, is that it works completely separate from the film, and is designed specifically for those looking for a jolt of high-energy to go with their drive to or from work, daily run, or just someone wanting to vibe like it’s the weekend.
For a movie stylish to the brim, with a powerhouse ensemble cast and strong technical filmmaking, the narrative itself feels frustratingly contrived and repetitive for more than half its runtime. While an argument can be made that a lot of its thematic motifs—the aimlessness, party-hard lifestyle, corporate greed—invoke some of French New Wave’s repetitive narrative nature, it does often feel like it runs on autopilot a touch, especially for something that looks as visually vibrant and fluid. There are moments of existential pause and emotional honesty—a few pivotal exchanges between Cole and Squirrel (Shaffer) that give you the feels—but it doesn’t feel like it’s enough.
Somehow, Joseph seems to make these issues work by getting one thing just right: the feel-good factor. It goes strongly in favor of the film, and has the potential to give viewers a pleasant—if not lingering—aftertaste. “We Are Your Friends” is, at the end of the day, a harmless movie that’s difficult to strongly recommend, but one I’d encourage readers to take on a spin once. You could come out of the cinemas hating it or being indifferent to it for how rote it feels a lot of the time. The thing is, there’s a likely possibility you’d end up gaining a lot more appreciation for it than you’d have expected.