“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.