We Are Your Friends looks like a Pinterest page, but plays out like a productively lumpy mashup of The Wolf of Wall Street and Eden, another ode to rapturous music with a mopey disposition. An early montage is busy with Google maps and San Fernando Valley landmarks, cluttered over with block-lettered words simultaneously narrated by the DJ Cole Carter (Zac Efron), who labors to create the “one track” that will be his “track to everything”: raves in Ibiza, festivals in Paris, piles of money, and unfettered artistic integrity. Meanwhile, Cole trudges through sun-speckled, cash-strapped existence redolent of Magic Mike: days spent laying shingles and nights spent doing DIY promotion and a healthy dose of club drugs, with a smattering of stone-faced conversations about socioeconomic malaise filling the gaps.
For a while, We Are Your Friends seems eager to assign Cole’s lifestyle a workaday glamour. His every step is matched by a trio of townie bros who serve as his hype squad, management, and the guys who hawk molly and hit on chicks at his performances. Director Max Joseph leans hard on the rigidly heteronormative bonhomie, but there’s little joy to be found here: Like pups in a Scorsese movie, the boys drool over the Porsche of a real estate sleaze played by Jon Bernthal, who, in a bizarre and tonally incoherent hat-tip to The Wolf of Wall Street, gives them a job exploiting foreclosed-upon homeowners. Meanwhile, Cole’s weekly dance night is an ongoing confirmation of his also-ran status, and the film depicts L.A. club culture through his eyes. It’s a drag, and an obstacle to be overcome.
Two new friends offer Cole a way out of the Valley. He finds a muse in the form of Stanford dropout Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), and a mentor in her boss and boyfriend, the alcoholic, past-his-prime DJ James (Wes Bentley). Instead of stabilizing the rigorously conventional arc of We Are Your Friends, Cole’s new friends send the film in incompatible stylistic directions. At a late-night afterparty, Cole takes PCP, and color leaks out of the walls, turning partygoers into figures out of Alex Katz paintings. A couple scenes later, Cole’s dead-end friends relate Instagram’s origin story with awe, a tenor he taps into shortly after, as he narrates a TED Talk-y speech about the science behind a perfect DJ set. In the midst of all of this, alternately torpid and thoughtful scenes find Cole playing the third wheel to James and Sophie. He quietly observes the deterioration of their relationship as he pines after Sophie and takes favors and music advice from James, who snarks on millennials as Bill Callahan plays on his stereo. The film is full of such sharp little musical details, bridging the gap between James’s DFA-era success and Cole’s generationally defined role as an acolyte of Skrillex.
Efron, breaking from the tightly coiled fratboy routine that made his performance in Neighbors a bit of a fascination, underplays Cole. There’s a bland determination to shots of him composing at his laptop, a dutiful charm as he hangs out shirtless with his friends, and a lurking sadness in his glassy blue eyes. He dances like a DJ, watchfully and with a studied, graceful caution. When We Are Your Friends becomes, at once, self-serious, dully predictable, and pointedly self-questioning, Efron’s distanced countenance emerges as a portrait of a young man overwhelmed by the diverging avenues toward success. Does it take luck or connections? Mastery of digital composition, or the ability to infuse the electronic with real-world sounds and influences? How does one conjure authenticity? An unexpectedly moving climax, beginning with an earnest hyper-sensory homage to Upstream Color, confirms the film as paying more than lip service to these questions, even if it can’t offer any good answers. As Cole tiptoes away from his past, We Are Your Friends keenly observes a character who doesn’t know how to secure his future, or his identity.