“Are we ever gonna be better than this?” Cole Carter (Zac Efron) entreats his hyped, pulsating crowd. “We Are Your Friends,” directed by Max Joseph, isn’t quite sure of the answer to that question. But, as an audience, you wish that this promising, but generic film were better than this. “We Are Your Friends” injects a throbbing beat and fresh style into a classic coming-of-age tale, but all the electronic dance music and formal experimentation can’t keep it out of the mire of a well-worn narrative.
The title “We Are Your Friends” is a curious one too, because with friends like these — run as far away as possible. In fairness, Cole is trying to do just that. His scrappy San Fernando Valley foursome is rounded out with a club promoter (Jonny Weston), actor-slash-drug dealer (Shiloh Fernandez), and requisite hanger-on (Alex Shaffer). Cole, an aspiring DJ, is the talent of the operation, and he tries to ditch these jokers every chance he gets. One night he crashes a party with legendary DJ James Reed (Wes Bentley), which sends everything topsy-turvy, but soaring into the world on top of the hill, out of the valley.
James takes him on as a protege, though matters are complicated by James’ irresistible girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), on whom Cole harbors a burning crush. Nevertheless, the trio manages to work it out until the inevitable molly-enhanced Vegas rave roll in the hay complicates things even further. Will Cole get the gig at Summerfest? Will Sophie work it out with alcoholic James? Can Squirrel and the gang keep up this rate of partying? You can probably hazard a guess at how all of these dilemmas work out.
There are some pseudo class struggle themes awkwardly shoveled in to make it seem topical, but also to inspire some sympathy for Sophie and Cole. They’re just too pretty to feel that bad for: inordinately beautiful, shiny aliens from another planet where no one gets hungover and bikini models eat bacon cheeseburgers. Unfortunately, for the underdeveloped subplot, every time someone says “housing market,” or “foreclosure,” it makes it feel very 2010, and less hyper-contemporary.
Efron brings his gorgeous, bright-eyed wonder to the role of Cole, who seems constantly surprised by the world around him, observing it with a renewed, child-like zeal when he discovers the organic origins of his computer music. It never seems like he will get sucked into the darkness of this world because his aura is too bright.
Ratajkowski doesn’t quite find the right groove. Playing a defensive too cool girl, it almost seems like she can’t be bothered to be there. She excels at being eye-candy, a trait for which she was no doubt cast. There’s a lame sexual politics to this boys-and-their-toys tale — and all the struggle-laced backstory in the world doesn’t allow Sophie to break out of her supportive sex-object role.
Joseph’s direction offers up an energetic take on the material, incorporating text visualization, quick-cutting montages and creative uses of animation to bring the thumping electronic music to cinematic life. Coupled with almost documentary-style shooting, it’s a compelling visual and aural experience, and when the soundtrack is going off, almost anything can be forgiven. Unfortunately, it’s when the music stops that the film’s originality does too.