In his various attempts to break out of his beginnings as a Disney-approved actor, Zac Efron stumbled into a different kind of stock role: leader of a group of bros. This worked well for Efron when he was the head of his house in Neighbors, but far less well in That Awkward Moment. We Are Your Friends falls somewhere between the two; it doesn’t quite capture the believability of tight friendship that Neighbors did, but it also doesn’t feel quite as random as it did in That Awkward Moment.
This may be, in part, because unlike those films, Efron is the undeniable lead of this film. Here, Efron plays Cole Carter, whose time is split between his group of similarly-aged male friends and his pursuit of becoming a known DJ. And while Efron has a certain amount of charisma that he brings to the character, the film doesn’t give him much to work with. Cole is frequently a passive lead character; events are more likely to happen to him than for him to actively pursue things. It doesn’t quite gel with the message the characters say they want: something more out of life.
That’s what Cole and his friends say they’re working their way towards as the film opens. Cole, Mason (Jonny Weston), Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez) and Squirrel (Alex Shaffer) spend their days promoting parties where Cole occasionally DJs and Ollie deals drugs. The group eventually connects with Paige (Jon Bernthal), a man whose business interests include unscrupulous deals with people defaulting on their mortgages. The guys dispute whether it’s worth the money they may bring in, or if they should continue to follow their dreams.
Cole more or less stumbles his way into a mentoring relationship with superstar DJ James Reed (Wes Bentley), while finding himself attracted to James’ personal assistant/girlfriend, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski). The scenario as a whole sets up We Are Your Friends‘ best and worst relationships. Bentley is the film’s greatest asset, and his character’s clear self-loathing plays out that are both self-destructive and more than willing to target others. Early on, Cole refers to James as someone who was once good, but became lazy pleasing the crowd. Whether or not that’s true (the film doesn’t do much to show whether anyone’s music is actually better or worse than anyone else’s), no one’s willing to call anyone – including himself, at times – out more than James. Just for that, he’s the most relatable character the film offers. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Sophie, a dull girl who can barely speak with any tone more engaging than flat and whose dance moves are devoid of energy, but somehow enough to get other people moving. It’s weird, and the issue appears to be a divergence between character and actress. Ratajkowski is pretty enough, but that’s all she brings to the film.
The rest of the cast may not be quite as mismatched as Ratajkowski, but aside from Bentley, no one’s able to bring a strong pulse to the film, either. Director and co-writer Max Joseph attempts to inject some energy into the film at a few points with quirky graphics, from on-screen text to illustrate Cole’s narration about life in the San Fernando Valley to a tutorial Cole offers about getting people to dance at a party, which awkwardly finds Cole calling the idea of getting a song’s BPM to mimic a human heart rate as a myth before demonstrating it as “true.” One scene does manage to work well: at one point, Cole is inadvertently high on PCP at a party at an art gallery, and he hallucinates the paint bleeding from the paintings and enveloping the party.
With its setting in the EDM scene, We Are Your Friends had the opportunity to tell a story in a setting that’s not been touched on that much by films. It seems to be the area the film’s most interested in pursuing. There’s a moment in the film, though, where Cole plays James a track that he’s working on that encapsulates the biggest problem with the film. When he hears the track, James mentions that the song is trying to be too many things at once. And that, in a nutshell, is the biggest problem with We Are Your Friends. Fans of EDM looking for a relevant cinematic experience would be better served by the French film Eden, released stateside earlier this summer.