While the shiny beautiful people of Hollywood sip elaborate cocktails in their hilltop mansions, the common rabble toil away at crap day-jobs in the San Fernando Valley. As they live in the literal shadow of the lifestyle they covet, wide-eyed dreamers short on cash but rich with ambition mark time in the Valley until that golden day they finally hit it big and can join the ranks of the well-medicated, well-attired, well-off Los Angelenos.
Cole Carter, an exceptionally pretty yet minimally talented DJ played by Zac Efron, explains this class divide during one of the many in-your-face voice-overs that pepper Max Joseph’s new film We Are Your Friends. As a flurry of non-diegetic images mosh across the screen, Efron notes that the Valley’s chief exports are pornography and strip-mall sushi. There’s nothing for him here, and he knows he can’t keep taking shitty roofing jobs and promoting side-room club gigs much longer before he loses the will to keep on. But he continues struggling towards stardom because in his mind, he’s already got his ticket out: all it takes is one killer track to pluck him out of obscurity and into the heady lifestyle of EDM.
We Are Your Friends, its title a tribute to the Justice remix of Simian’s booming electro hit “Never Be Alone,” thumps through the beats of the prototypical star-is-born narrative, but without the intelligence of Boogie Nights or the transcendent pop glitz of Saturday Night Fever, its closest ancestor. Joseph (the guy who holds the camera and contributes precious little else to the Catfish TV show) aims to transpose these universal themes into the colorful, vibrant world of electronic music. Mercifully, he adequately communicates a workable knowledge and affection for the specifics of electronic music. The “hey, fellow youths!” vibe of the trailer was a false alarm; Joseph’s not elbowing his way into a scene in order to shake the pocket change out of ravers. Instead, the film works as a time capsule for the EDM moment, and fails as, well, a film.
In the line of succession for Channing Tatum’s throne as Hollywood’s go-to charismatic bro type, Efron’s still pretty far down. But We Are Your Friends does offer him the chance to show off some of his unique talents, such as reading patently ridiculous dialogue without bursting into a fit of laughter, or speaking to Emily Ratajkowski like a human being, though she possesses all of the screen presence of the innumerable sex dolls that have undoubtedly been modeled after her. Joseph and co-scriptwriter Meaghan Oppenheimer have saddled Efron with some truly risible nonsense about the scientific component of EDM, forcing Efron to map out how the BPM of a song can be manipulated to make dancers’ hearts explode (or something?). At least he gets a worthy costar in Wes Bentley, who sheds his usual off-putting dead-eyed stare to play Cole’s DJ mentor, an established star in decline named James Reed. Bentley looks like he’s enjoying himself for the first time in years, popping a quarter-smile when he informs Cole that the painting he’s looking at is only melting because of the PCP he unknowingly took earlier.
A fair portion of the film’s runtime is eaten up by lengthy, adoring montages of characters partying set to eardrum-annihilating electronic music, which raises the question of who, exactly, We Are Your Friends is for. It holds minimal appeal for anyone unfamiliar with the scene it depicts, and hardcore EDM devotees may very well resent that the good stuff has been hidden under a phony Efron-Ratajkowski-Bentley love triangle and worn-out L.A. success story. At most, it’s an easy film to bob your head along with, suggesting that Joseph may have been slightly off with that title. If he was shooting for truth in advertising, he could’ve gone with the Chemical Brothers and retitled it “Don’t Think.”