I could rant and rave about EDM culture till the MDMAddicts foam at the mouth. What’s supposed to be about music really only appears to focus on grabbing the nearest thing and doing it — be it man, woman or drug. Famous DJs make trash music that sells because it’s what we all want to hear. A new-age art form that’s endemic in my generation, EDM shows more about how we’ve raged than how we’ve changed. I hoped We Are Your Friends might delve into the DJ lifestyle that’s evolved into an addiction. At some points, it blurs the lines and senses and manages to say something poignant. Then it OD’s and it’s a bad trip from there.
Cole Carter (Zac Efron) is a 23-year old struggling to make a living in LA with his buddies. He DJs in club side-rooms while his friends promote the joint and sell dope. As any aspiring artist must to make it big, Carter gets lucky: he meets James Reed (Wes Bentley’s version of a famous over-the-hill, 40+ alcoholic DJ), and they become friends over a spliff and some PCP (more on this later). Reed takes Carter under his wing, while the pupil falls for the mentor’s personal and sexy-time assistant Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski). Yeah, that awkward moment. As Carter fights to make the Hollywood hills come alive to the sound of music, his friends fall by the wayside, a love triangle develops and expected conflicts arise.
We Are Your Friends, like the cultural icons it espouses, has a serious identity crisis. For the first 45 minutes, Max Joseph’s debut feature plays like a feisty artistic auteurist exploration of the DJ world and lifestyle. Paired with brilliant and creative cinematography, the plot manages to build and flourish to an apex, lulling you into a trance. The characters are intriguing, the jokes hit, the narrative floats and the post-production buoys an already well-shot and directed film. When you most expect a huge drop from this EDM-informed film, you get a fat oscillating fart noise — like a massive trap build seguing into an Edgar Winter/Keith Sweat collaboration. Efron and the gang hit their sisyphucked-up peak and roll all the way down.
Early on, Joseph seems to have a firm hold on his film. We Are Your Friends’ first act gives the actors some nice lines to play with and has some original visual foreplay that seems more like a tease when you get all the way in bed with it. Overall, there’s an artsy, hipster grunge to the movie’s early stages that got me thinking “Hey, maybe this movie doesn’t suck.” When James Reed slips Carter a drink at a party the shots start flowing, then leak and boil as a POV through Carter’s eyes shows hot yuppies slowly transforming into impressionist, Van Gogh style animations. At some point he realizes he’s been slipped some PCP and his whole world explodes into color, melting and spilling on screen. On the whole, it’s one of the better hallucination scenes I’ve witnessed. A lot of the first act follows a similar pattern: cool visuals with matching brain effect. It’s all eye kandi. Then the shots keep coming and the plot starts to fade to black-out.
Zac Efron. Whoo. Let’s let that fester for a second. Ok. Well, he wasn’t that bad — at least the character fit his persona as the attractive semi-talented internally conflicted future superstar that he’s been since he first got his head in the game. He’s just not a headliner. Somehow he’s managed to add more bulk to his physique and skulk to his look. There are moments when he’s 17 again, living life and balling out. Other times, he busts out his Charlie St. Cloud and sheds a tear or two. Efron’s got the Zoolander problem: it’s all the same look. Unfortunately he’s got more model in him than he does personality.
Casting tells a lot about this film and its message. Ratajkowski — a good-looking brunette who was likely cast for her breasts (which we’ve already seen in Blurred Lines and fully exposed in Gone Girl) — spends more time dancing and looking fine than she does as an actual love interest. Let’s just say there’s no sober sex in We Are Your Friends, and all the relationships are founded on sharing drugs and what Robin Thicke calls “hugs.” This is confused for love, as it so often is in society. That would work as social commentary if the show-runners hadn’t been completely serious. At least Wes Bentley is well cast in his role and provides one of the few solid performances, flashing moments of rage and sagacity.
Preconceptions and prejudice aside, We Are Your Friends is novel fare, if only for the heights it aims to reach in following a relatively new social character. DJs and dance culture are still adapting and growing as electronic music nestles into the international music rolodex. A story tracking a new, unproven, talented EDM DJ working his way to superstardom has potential to explore this style of music in a way that society hasn’t spent much time doing: as an art form. Efron’s Cole Carter could have been a conduit to crack open and observe a world that is far more about art and craft than it is about getting fucked up and laying pipe. Instead, We Are Your Friends forgets all that and embraces the drug-sex-rave culture, hoping the titties and mid-20-somethings getting shitty will distract you from the realities of this lifestyle and how perverted it’s become. It’s We Are Your Freuds, and Joseph’s first film falls flat on its face like it Freudian slipped.
There’s a time in the film when James Reed criticizes Carter for having no signature style: his music’s a big mashup of drops and incompatible noises. Yes, there are moments of clarity in between — where there’s something real to the music, Reed says. We Are Your Friends lacks a signature in the same way. Plot points are looped in, dropping when you haven’t even recovered from the last impact. There are about ten different strains of movies laced in this film, and any of them could be good if they were handled with tact and taste. We Are Your Friend is the flavorless pill that leaves you sweating. It’s not Molly. It’s placebo. Maybe there’s a little PCP in there too.
CONCLUSION: We Are Your Friends isn’t the thoughtless bump-and-grind you might expect, even if it’s not necessarily worth raving about.