Zac Efron became a teen heartthrob with the success of the High School Musical movies and then did everything possible to decimate and alienate the core audience that made him a star.
He rightly realized that the shelf life of a young Disney star was limited and turned his attention to making serious but little seen films like Parkland, At Any Price and The Paperboy, an art house film better known for a scene utilizing an age-old cure for a jellyfish sting you don’t normally see administered by an Oscar winner like Nicole Kidman.
His latest movie, We Are Your Friends, the first major-studio film set in the world of electronic dance music, is a mix of music and romance that sees Efron play an aspiring DJ who falls in love with his mentor’s girlfriend.
It’s a role that should appeal to his original fanbase, the kids who have aged out of High School Musical and now listen to EDM, where his other screen choices seem to have left them behind. Occasionally he’s thrown them a bone, with popcorn movies like New Year’s Eve, or Neighbors, where he plays the prerequisite 20-something good-looking Hollywood hunk.
Take That Awkward Moment for instance. He played an avowed hook-up artist, a young guy who would rather hang out with his best friends Daniel (Miles Teller) and Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) than have a meaningful relationship with a girl. In time-honoured rom-com fashion, it’s a movie that takes advantage of its leading man’s blue eyes and sculpted abs. Efron’s hair is practically a character in the film.
Perhaps while making The Lucky One, a Nicolas Sparks romance co-starring Taylor Schilling, it occurred to him that simply watching good-looking people fall in love does not a movie make.
I couldn’t help but think that Efron, when he says to Schilling’s character Beth, “I know you deserve better than this,” was actually speaking to the audience.
Luckily his other films are less about his looks and more about his ability. The Paperboy is an odd film. It’s an art house thriller — meaning that there aren’t many thrills — in which each of its stars do some fairly intense envelope pushing in a story about a reporter returning to his native Florida to investigate a murder.
Paired with risk-taking actors like Nicole Kidman, David Oyelowo, John Cusack and Matthew McConaughey, Efron works hard to shake off the early teen idol gloss that made him famous. He mostly succeeds, although director Lee Daniels’s camera still caresses the actor, taking full advantage of his effortless appeal.
In Me and Orson Welles, Efron is overshadowed by an actor playing a man who died many years before the core audience of this movie was even born. Christian McKay plays Orson Welles with such panache that Efron becomes a supporting player in his own movie but still makes a strong impression as a teenager with dreams of being on stage in this handsomely mounted period piece.
Other films like At Any Price, a 2012 powerful tale of fathers and sons and the pressure to succeed, have shown not only his depth but his willingness to stretch as an actor.
So why does Efron, who could have a movie franchise career in a heartbeat, look past the obvious career path?
Efron told the Hollywood Reporter that his often eclectic acting choices are always artistic in nature and never about money.
“I’m constantly searching for characters that are about betterment of self and betterment of others,” he says. “And I’m searching for those parts because those are the ones that make me happy. They’re the ones that fulfil me personally.”
“We Are Your Friends,” the first studio movie set in the world of electronic dance music, can be looked at two ways.
In its most basic form it’s a romance about a young, ambitious DJ trying to make a name for himself but a closer look reveals more.
Cole, played by Zac Efron, learns the hard way that real art, something that comes from the heart and really means something, doesn’t come in shiny happy packages but is the result of life experience.
Like Cole, it’s not hard to imagine that the former teen heartthrob has learned a thing or two in his twenty-eight years. In a search for more interesting roles he’s tried his best to alienate the audience who first fell in love with his High School Musical good looks and charm. I’m not saying that “We Are Your Friends” is great art, but Efron’s involvement suggests that this coming of age story might be his first truly adult role.
The film begins in the San Fernando Valley, a metaphor for the disconnect its characters—Cole, Mason (Jonny Weston), Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez) and Squirrel (Alex Shaffer)—feel to the glamorous life of Hollywood. Bright lights, fame and fortune are literally just around the corner but may as well be a thousand miles away. The quartet has a plan, however. They promote a Thursday club show and have dreams of stardom.
Cole gets a leg up from superstar DJ James Reed (Wes Bentley), a troubled guy who teaches the younger man about finding his true path and making music that reflects his life. Complications arise when Cole jumps into bed with James’s girlfriend / assistant Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski).
“We Are Your Friends” is a simple story about aspirational behaviour that effectively speaks to millennial angst with one repeated chorus: “Are we ever going to be better than this?” The message is wrapped in a slickly made movie with an interesting dynamic between Cole and James—Bentley absolutely nails James’s world-weary narcissism—and an energetic relationship between the four friends.
On the downside, the romance, which is the catalyst for much of the action, is the least interesting thing about the film. Ratajkowski is a slinky presence, a whirlwind on the dance floor, but aside from pillowy lips doesn’t bring much excitement to the role. Like many of the plot devices used here Cole and Sophie’s fling is a given. The movie telegraphs many of its twists and you know form the moment they meet that something will happen between the two.
What is less expected is the powerful climax. This is a no spoiler zone, but I will say “We Are Your Friends” concludes with a sequence that not only speaks to Cole’s ambitions but makes a larger statement about his generation. “Are we ever going to be better than this?” It’s a potent question and by asking it Efron speaks to a legion of cut adrift twentysomethings whose lives will be much different than the lives of their parents.
In many ways “We Are Your Friends” is a teen movie but Cole’s coming-of-age and Efron’s performance feels very grown up.