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Non-Review Review: We Are Your Friends

Appropriately enough, We Are Your Friends feels like a selection of remixed samples of other movies.

The script for We Are Your Friends dutifully hits all the requisite beats from a coming of age story about a young man trying to find his way in the world; in this case, “the world” refers to “the San Fernando valley”, just over the Hollywood Hills. Appropriately enough, We Are Your Friends positions the valley (“the Valley”) as a sort of purgatory for those who want to get out towards better things; aspiring DJs and actors trapped in dull routine who must learn to stay true to themselves to attain meaningful (and not just material) success.

The beat goes on...

The beat goes on…

It is a very familiar story structure, one that lends itself to the sense of social striving associated with other (more substantial) films about life in Los Angeles. We Are Your Friends doesn’t have a story as much as it has an outline; the requisite steps that young would-be DJ Cole Carter must take on the path to stardom. There is an older mentor with feet of clay, a troubled love interest also looking for meaning in the world; there is the false promise of financial security, a tragic lesson about life lived to access.

However, all of this is drawn so broadly that We Are Your Friends is a tracklist rather than an album. Director Max Joseph brings commendable energy to the film, and Zac Efron is quite affable as a protagonist more cliché than character. Wes Bentley adds just a hint of flavour to an otherwise ambient film. We Are Your Friends is inoffensive, but ultimately more visually interesting than completely satisfying.

Hey, Mister DJ, put a record on...

Hey, Mister DJ, put a record on…

More than New York, California lends itself to these sorts of coming of age stories. There any number of reasons why this might be the case. Positioned at the extreme west of the United States, California represents the end of the American Dream. It is the point at which the seemingly limitless western expanse gives way to nothing but peaceful ocean. In the grand myth of “manifest destiny”, California is the point at which the settlers could expand no further. This is where dreams must end; whether hopefully or otherwise.

Of course, Hollywood is also a part. What better representation of the fantasy of fame and reinvention? Cole is surrounded by friends who aspire; Mason aspires to club life, Ollie aspires to an acting career, Squirrel aspires to something better. We Are Your Friends covers well-trodden ground, capturing the anxieties facing any number of millennials coming of age in a world that does not measure up to their expectations. The film has little new or interesting to say, checking off the coming of age story clichés like a DJ running through the party standards.

I like to move it, move it...

I like to move it, move it…

None of We Are Your Friends feels real, despite what Cole might try to argue through his voiceover. The film quotes the popular urban legend that dance music works best synced to the rhythm of the human heart; it is not a subtle metaphor for a story about trying to realise a dream, but it is perhaps the most interesting card that We Are Your Friends holds in its hand. The bulk of the story is spent hitting all the expected plot points in a story like this; forbidden love, the temptation to sell out, the confrontation with a respected mentor figure.

We Are Your Friends never treats these moments, or the characters living through them, with any depth or complexity. In keeping with the movie’s dance music motif, the film never slows down to properly process anything that is happening. Max Joseph papers over these absences in the movie’s plotting or characterisation through the power of montage – many of which feel familiar themselves. There is the “establishing routine” montage, the “being creative” montage, the “falling in love” montage.

All hands on decks...

All hands on decks…

Indeed, one of the movie’s most strange creative choices is to portray the film’s emotional nadir through a snappy fast-moving montage; what really should be a powerful moment is undercut by the film’s decision to energetically bounce right through it. To be fair, the film might have been trying to capture some of the numb detachment associated with moments of extreme emotional trauma, but Joseph’s direction is so slick and so confident that it really seems like the film is trying to cover the unpleasantness as quickly as possible.

We Are Your Friends is not a subtle film. When Cole’s mentor figure advises him to pay attention to the world around him and to be more “real”, the movie signposts its final act character revelation. Cole’s eventual epiphany moment would be trite even if the film hadn’t laboured the thematic point so ham-fistedly. As with everything else about We Are Your Friends, it feels like a very stylised and very artificial depiction of “real.” As much as We Are Your Friends positions itself as the story of Cole growing up, it is a very young person’s idea of what “real” means.

"What a refreshing beverage."

“What a refreshing beverage.”

Yet, despite all this, there is a certain charm and energy to We Are Your Friends. The cast work well together. Emily Ratajkowski is solid in a thankless role. Wes Bentley brings a bit of flair and depth to a rather one note character. However, a lot of credit belongs to the lead; Zac Efron is an effortlessly charming protagonist. Cole Carter is nothing more than a collection of stock elements fastened together into the shape of something resembling a character, but Efron brings a pleasantness that guides the film through some of its more indulgent (and light) moments.

Efron is particularly effective during the sequences where Cole is DJ-ing. Given the themes of the movie, these are the moments when Cole bears his soul; Efron lends the role an impressive physicality. It feels like every perfectly honed muscle in his body is working hard to provide some soul-rending music. The film never quite earns its obligatory third act catharsis, but Efron gives Cole a very focused and controlled energy that is building towards some release. It is an impressive performance, one that wants for better material.

Valley Forge...

Valley Forge…

Max Joseph also does good work as director. The script doesn’t really provide him with much to go on, but Joseph keeps the energy levels consistently high. We Are Your Friends might not be going anywhere in particular, but it is certainly moving. Joseph works well with little stylised touches like animations or title cards that could seem cutesy or forced if mishandled. Appropriately enough, given the world in which We Are Your Friends is set, the film moves to a tempo that keeps the party from dying.

It helps that Joseph and Efron commit wholeheartedly to some of the stranger touches in the script. In particular, Cole gets a couple of extensive monologues about the theory of dance music that fall somewhere between pseudo-science and indulgent waffle. However, these are also the only moments in the film that feel unique and particular to this individual coming of age story; these sequences might play like the most stylish powerpoint presentation ever assembled, but they give the movie a distinctive flavour, and Joseph and Efron are shrewd to play into them.

Sophie's choice...

Sophie’s choice…

That said, Joseph’s direction does feel a little too polished. We Are Your Friends never quite develops the character of Sophie beyond a fairly common archetype in these types of stories, but Joseph’s camera takes any opportunity to leer at Emily Ratajkowski. At one point, Cole is explaining how music is linked to heartbeat, with the camera focusing on the chests of various characters dancing at a party. We get to cut from one dancing man’s chest to his beating heart; when the time comes to focus on Ratajkowski, the camera doesn’t cut to her beating heart.

There is something a little uncomfortable in how Joseph films Ratajkowski. None of the characters inhabiting We Are Your Friends feel particularly real; they seem to exist as two dimensional objects interacting with a paper thin world. Sophie is a particularly bad example, feeling like a character who exists to generate conflict between Cole and his mentor while offering the possibility of a happy ending. Sophie is more plot point than character; given the music video stylings of We Are Your Friends, the camera occasionally treats Ratajkowski as an object rather than an actor.

We Are Your Friends is stylish but empty; a sampling of material that sounded better elsewhere, but assembled into a light and fast-moving distraction. The beat goes on.

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