Swingers isn’t really about swing dancing, Magic Mike isn’t really about male stripping, and Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t really about folk. The best coming-of-age films set in a particular subculture evoke coming-of-age feelings so well that you almost forget the subculture. We Are Your Friends is almost kind of like those movies, but then it remembers it’s supposed to be about EDM (Electronic Dance Music) again, which becomes its albatross. An albatross made of puffy headphones.
Which is to say, We Are Your Friends might be a pretty great movie if you unhitched it from the inevitable scene of Zac Efron triumphantly remixing bleep blorp loops before an audience of coked up teenyboppers who wouldn’t know if they were listening to Mozart or the sound a of robot murdering a goat. Such is the inherently uncinematic nature of a sexy Ken Doll in a $30 t-shirt pressing buttons on his laptop, no matter how intensely he sweats and stares while doing it. That’s just not a vision of success I can root for.
Not that director Max Joseph doesn’t work his ass off trying to make striving for DJ stardom seem universal. In fact he probably deserves a medal (maybe just bottle service). We Are Your Friends is so sporadically great outside of the scenes of actual DJing that it makes you wonder what could’ve been.
Zac Efron is tolerable as Cole Carter, an average-but-beautiful bro from the San Fernando Valley who could’ve gone to UC Davis on a track scholarship, if only he wasn’t so antsy to change the world with his sick beats. “College is a waste of time,” he says. So it is that he ends up living in his best bro Mason’s pool house, promoting shows at Social every Thursday, always looking for that ticket out of the valley. Which they acknowledge as kind of a sh*tty dirt hole but take a sort of kitsch pride in (sort of a parallel with the way the movie treats electronic music as a whole).
Efron will say a line like “Things are different for us. You can invent an app, start a blog, sell things online…” and you’ll want to ban millennials forever (and I say this as someone who literally started a blog), but there’s something timeless and deeply truthful about the idea of being from a sh*tty place that you sort of hate, but still stick up for when outsiders put it down. That this timelessness and cheap trend pimping coexist in the same movie is the frustrating dichotomy of We Are Your Friends.
Unquestionably, the runaway stars of the film are Emily Ratajkowski’s breasts and Futurebeard from The Hunger Games, aka Wes Bentley. The former show up in a variety of forms, from tasteful sweater to tantalizingly low-cut top to a sheer-except-for-a-black-rectangle-across-the-mid-boob-area rave outfit that shows off both the sides and underneath of the boobs, while also backless to emphasize bralessness. Such versatility! Needless to say, I was riveted.
Futurebeard, meanwhile, plays Efron’s mentor, and he is mesmerizing. To call Wes Bentley’s performance here Oscar-worthy might not be much of a stretch. He plays a star DJ who’s played (uh… scratched? spun? mixed?) all over the world, before returning to his spacious SoCal studio-mansion to drink too much, seduce Zac Efron with his wonderful toys, and delivery beautiful, boozy bons mots about dance music and life.
Bentley is a study in peculiar contradictions. With his stylish haircut, Sharpie beard, slightly jagged teeth, and a-little-too-skinny-to-be-healthy physique, he perfectly rides the line between stylish and strung out, which obviously was the point. Has this guy got it all figured out, or has he been terrible places that I never want to go? He manages to pull off personal magnetism and thousand-yard stare simultaneously. When he tells off Zac Efron for being “too young to even understand the meaning of the word ‘irreparable,'” he doesn’t need to elaborate, it’s all there in his face.
It also helps that his character gets every good line. Like when he tells Efron “you’re 24, you’re not even a person yet.” Or Efron and Ratajkowski, “I’ll leave you guys to talk about your millennial angst, your struggles with constant validation.”
See, there’s a diabolical self-awareness to We Are Your Friends, the sense that it knows you want to hate it but keeps beating you to the punch. Like an entire scene where Bentley’s character implores Efron’s to record his own samples, demonstrating with an actual kick drum, so that “you won’t be just another laptop DJ.” “Sounds have soul,” he explains, and he’s so smooth that he almost makes you forget that the live drum sound he just recorded is still going to get hacked apart and reconstituted in a computer, and then that recording remixed and modulated and overlayed onstage by a guy in front of a Macbook, trying to sweat and dance enough to look like he’s doing real work. Honestly, f*ck that guy.
Scenes like the kick drum scene are essentially the candy coating over the EDM pill meant to keep it from upsetting delicate grandpa tummies like mine (grandpas being anyone over the age of 27). They’re beautifully done, but We Are Your Friends still feels like a film where the hook that probably got it made (an EDM movie! raves! DJs! hot chicks!) becomes the anchor that keeps it from ever being truly great.
And sure, it’s not the most original scenario. It’s almost a pastiche of familiar plots. Young prodigy meets mentor/benefactor and falls for his girl, jeopardizing everything. Prodigy from the block is torn between the promise of a better life and loyalty to his friends, jeopardizing everything. One the crew dies so the others can learn a lesson. Pour one out for Date Rape Dave, y’all.
Yet if you strip away the EDM stuff, it’s a story about young people coming into adulthood, trying to find a place in the world where they can live comfortably without being a despicable leech or a sad sellout. I’d like to think anyone can relate to that, even if you think trying to match your 128 bpm electro track to the speed of the human heart is the stupidest thing in the world.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.