September 17, 2015

The Visit

When a director pleasantly surprises me—especially one I’m not particularly fond of—it restores my faith in the whole movie-going experience. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit is a movie that deserves to be seen, especially by people—like me—who have written this director off over the years, often with good reason. Although I had some problems with the film, I quite enjoyed much of it, and this may be one of the few times that a Shyamalan plot twist, once revealed, won’t detract from a second viewing. More importantly, this movie is alive and funny and freakishly weird. Shyamalan’s much celebrated 1999 debut The Sixth Sense oozes a kind of grim solemnity that feels antithetical to the horror genre; with The Visit, Shyamalan has loosened up. He deftly offsets the film’s ultimately disturbing tale with humor that feels delightfully inappropriate, like laughing in church; it’s both a reprieve from the film’s darker elements and a kind of manipulation, a veil between us and certain horrific realities present within The Visit.

The Visit is about Rebecca and Tyler, a brother and sister played by Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould, who go to spend a week with their grandparents, whom they’ve never met. Their mother (played by the vibrant, funny Kathryn Hahn) was a rebellious kid, and she stormed out of her parents' lives fifteen years ago and never looked back. And even though she hasn't yet made up with them, she's sending her kids off to their farmhouse for the week, perhaps with the hope that a reconciliation will present itself as a result. 

One of the film’s potentially distracting gimmicks is that it’s shot as a documentary: Rebecca is a burgeoning filmmaker, and she has decided to turn their week into a movie project, enlisting the help of goofy, surprisingly insightful, Tyler, who’s a natural ham with a penchant for improvising silly, amusing little rap songs. (Rebecca, incidentally, uses film jargon constantly, and while this may have seemed like a cute way to portray her as precocious and driven, sometimes it just feels a little grating. But her character is bigger than just this one foible, and DeJonge gives a lovely performance of depth.)

But Shyamalan uses this gimmick to his advantage: We feel immersed in the inner-lives of these two kids, who are some of the best written child characters I've seen in movies in a long time. DeJonge and Oxenbould are the heart and soul of The Visit, as well as the dog and pony show; it's their quasi-Abbott and Costello routine which endears us to the film, and maybe protects us from what could very well have been a nasty, unpleasant experience. The documentary aspect is always frustrating at some point, such as when a dangerous situation demands that a character put down the damn camera. But even this irritation subsides in light of the overall movie experience, which is mostly thrilling and just creepy enough. 


I’ve never been overly concerned with figuring out plot twists in movies. I always feel a little embarrassed—and like a bad movie-goer—when someone says, “Oh, I figured that ending out right away.” I rarely even try to guess. That being said, I have, like everyone, been conditioned to expect some big reveal in an M. Night Shyamalan movie, and have mostly been disappointed with them (as with 2004’s The Village). It’s difficult not to feel the wheels turning around in your head with these movies, and I eventually guessed (correctly) that there was something suspicious about the fact that these kids had never seen their grandparents’ faces before, and that they were meeting them without their mother present. Add to that the knowledge that Grandma and Grandpa volunteer as counselors for a mental institution, and you can start to figure out what’s really happened.


Playing the grandparents, Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie are perfectly cast: their faces were unfamiliar to me--which I think worked to their advantage--and they’re polished actors, capable of blending their characters’ awkward homespun kindliness with the increasing dosage of macabre weirdness. We soon realize that something is oh so not right with Grandma and Grandpa. At first they just seem like quiet, sweet, simple country folk. (I kept expecting them to be part of a cult.) Grandpa works their isolated, peaceful farm, Grandma toils away in the kitchen making all kinds of bad-good foods: cheddar biscuits, cookies, pies. And you know, she occasionally asks Rebecca to clean the oven from inside it.

The children become increasingly concerned with their grandparents’ strange behavior at night, too, like when they spot Grandma frantically pacing the house like a madwoman, or violently throwing up on the kitchen floor, or repetitively scratching at the walls. But there’s always some “reasonable” explanation, and ultimately the running joke becomes, “that’s just how old people are. They’re different from you and me.”

The Visit hilariously examines our tacit fears of aging and the elderly, which play themselves out in a certain casual dismissal of them. We don’t want to think about the fact that our bodies and minds will start to fail us some day, or how these failings will affect our independence and our privacy. Interacting with the elderly reminds us where we’re headed, and this scares many of us. And how many of us have rolled our eyes at an elderly grandparent going on and on about health problems that are often way too descriptive?

The Visit exposes something urgent and strange and, even, funny in our culture: We may actually think of older people as monsters. If we believe in the concept of the Normal—that there are certain kinds of bodies that are “normal” and any bodies which deviate from these set norms are therefore “abnormal”—we then have to define what normal is, and we ultimately come to a definition excludes the elderly. Normal, traditionally, includes full use of the body and the mind, general good health, and some measure of physical beauty, intellectual sharpness, a sense of humor, and economic success. According to The Visit, when bodies violate this sense of normalcy, the result is terror. 

What’s so great about The Visit is that none of these fascinating ideas overtake the sheer nutso exuberance of the film. The movie works as a purely entertaining shocker and as a comedy, as a wonderfully developed study of two children and the way they view the world, and as a battle between old and young. It’s difficult to believe this is an M. Night Shyamalan picture, because it’s such a delightful freakout of a movie.

September 10, 2015


Judy Greer, who’s equally adept at piercing drama and electric comic lunacy, finally gets a vehicle in the form of Addicted to Fresno. Greer plays Shannon, who’s down on her luck, to say the least, and has taken up with her well-intentioned sister Martha (Natasha Lyonne), who’s gotten her a job where she works, cleaning rooms at a sleazy motel in Fresno, a city that has embedded its magnetic funk on the two women. Fresno, in fact, becomes a metaphor for the kind of horrible things we do to ourselves over and over again: Shannon is a sex addict, and she has little regard for her own personal safety or well-being as she jumps from one sleazy guy to another.

Shannon has been going to a twelve-steps program to fight her sex addiction, but it’s not helping. When Martha catches Shannon in the act with a particularly gross motel guest, Shannon panics and pretends he’s raping her. A struggle ensues, and somehow, Shannon kills the hapless horn-dog. The rest of the movie follows the sisters’ increasingly desperate attempts to dispose of the body, which they’ve hidden inside one of their big blue sanitation carts, and into which they continuously feed a generous hale of ice cubes.

Addicted to Fresno falters occasionally as a movie, sometimes running out of steam. At times, its story and execution feel only a few notches above the kind of readily available and unwatchable junk that Netflix provides to their instant-streaming customers. But it’s also very, very funny, and the performances of Judy Greer and Natasha Lyonne elevate the material and give it depth. These are both strong actresses who are funny, and it’s their strength as performers and their characters’ bond as sisters that improves Addicted to Fresno immeasurably.

Moreover, director Jamie Babbit and screenwriter Karey Dornetto have created a tough-minded comedy, not one of these soft-in-the-middle genre flicks that turns predictably syrupy at the end. As a result, it's full of pleasantly unexpected moments. The surprising elements of this movie that make it, ultimately, a winner, for me. And yes, it’s an R-rated comedy and it’s about a sex addict. So you can expect a good amount of vulgarity next to your sisters-bonding-despite-their-differences plot line. But Greer shapes Shannon into a real human being. She’s not just a “slut” or a “nympho.” Somewhere along the film’s madcap travails, Shannon admits she’s tired of having sex, but the pain and disappointment of having sex is better than the emptiness of not doing it. Kind of profound, and much deeper than anything we got out of Trainwreck.

Natasha Lyonne’s Martha provides perfect balance to Judy Greer’s interminable screw-up Shannon. Martha isn’t exactly the picture of success, but she’s independent enough to feel a little superior toward her sister. Of her small, humble house and her very humble job, she says “It’s my American dream.” There's a kind of dumb optimism in that statement that feels distinctly American and Lyonne delivers it not with tongue-in-cheek but with whole-hearted pluckiness. And Martha has her own issues too: She’s been unable to get over a recent break-up, and she’s as dependent on her sister Shannon’s screw-ups as Shannon is on Martha’s dependability.

The film is peopled with amusing supporting characters: Aubrey Plaza (perhaps not as funny as her character in Parks and Recreation) plays Martha’s kickboxing instructor and love interest; Ron Livingston plays Shannon’s married therapist-boyfriend, who’s somehow shocked (after leaving his wife for Shannon) that Shannon isn’t interested in pursuing a committed relationship; Fred Armisen and Allison Tolman play a couple who run a pet cemetery, who blackmail Shannon and Martha for 25,000 dollars once they discover their secret; Molly Shannon plays the sister of the deceased motel guest; and Malcolm Barrett plays Eric, another motel employee, and the first guy for whom Shannon feels more than a simply carnal attraction. There’s a hilarious scene in which he recites a delightful poem about the awfulness of Fresno, and Shannon concurs with alacrity.

That’s probably the best joke of this movie: the whole film is a happy little riff on how rotten Fresno is. But as anti-Fresno as it is, there’s some kind of knowing affection here, an affection not far off from John Waters’ love of his hometown of Baltimore, which may be the Fresno of the East coast. Readers, I recommend this one, especially if you’re a fan of either Judy Greer or Natasha Lyonne.

There’s also an hilarious scene in which the sisters try to rob an adult toy store (run by Clea Duvall). Shannon muses: “Who would have thought a sex store was such a low cash enterprise?” And another—the film’s most delightfully offensive scene—in which the ladies rob a bar mitzvah, at which the honored 13-year-old boy performs a raunchy Jewish-gangsta rap. I’ve never seen that before. 

September 07, 2015


As a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Elizabeth Moss channels Catherine Deneuve’s character in Repulsion, that unsettling 1965 psychological horror film from Roman Polanski. Moss, playing a woman who’s recently been dumped by her boyfriend, stars in Queen of Earth, the latest concoction from writer-director Alex Ross Perry. Moss and her co-star Katherine Waterston play best friends Katherine and Virginia. Katharine (the character, not the actress) has not only suffered the traumatic end of a romance, but also the painful loss of her father, a celebrated artist who battled severe depression. (And what's more, Katherine lives in the shadow of his reputation as an artist, accused of being the product of nepotism than an actual talent herself.) Virginia has enticed Katherine to her family’s lake house—which is apparently an annual trip for the two of them—ostensibly to help her best friend grieve in peace and maybe just find a way to breathe.

Alex Ross Perry points his camera directly at Moss (or, occasionally, the other actors) most of the time, and zooms in. Her face becomes the canvass for his story of psychological crisis. It’s good that Moss is such an expressive actor, a woman who is absolutely in touch with herself, with her emotions, and has a real command of that canvass. Her wide eyes, her running eye-liner, her lips seemingly inflated by the bubblegum-pink lipstick that she sloppily applied without regard to coloring between the lines, all of these cosmetic and exterior details show us a person at an emotional and psychological crossroads.

What’s perhaps more disturbing, however, than watching a woman go mad (which would seem exploitive on its own), is the way Queen of Earth smartly depicts the power play at the heart of the friendship between Katherine and Virginia. We see flashbacks of the previous summer trip to the lake house, when Virginia was going through her own painful breakup, and when things were pretty much okay for Katherine, who had that year brought along her then-boyfriend, stifling any chance for a good girl-time session between friends. Now, in the current year, Virginia has returned the favor so-to-speak, inviting a local beau named Rich (Patrick Fugit) over all the time, using him to feel superior to Katherine. It helps a lot that Rich likes getting under Katherine’s skin, and Virginia, although she doesn’t want to admit it, is starting to lose faith in her friendship with Katharine. Secretly, she’s already done, but she can’t quite admit it to herself, and, moreover, she’s still bristling from Katherine’s own abuse of their friendship the year before. Like Nancy Allen's character in the 1976 Carrie biting her lip just before dumping the pig's blood on the bemused Carrie, Virginia wants to enact some pain. She's just not as honest or openly depraved about it. 

This is a film about getting even while still displaying a smile and a few looks of concern. And the thing is, neither Katherine nor Virginia is the villain of Queen of Earth. The real villain is the lies we tell ourselves, or our own very human need to be with other people, to find validation of ourselves in others, that sets us up not simply for disappointment, but for the throes of despair, once the people we love have failed us, lied to us, used us, rejected us, laughed at us. It’s all there: in every relationship there is love and hate, truth and deception, friend and foe.

While Queen of Earth will surely be a hard sell for some—it’s a tough movie to sit through even at 90 minutes, because there’s nothing pleasurable about what it wants to show us—it does showcase some strong performances, and even though I don’t think I ever need to sit through this movie again, I appreciate what it’s trying to say about relationships. Katherine is very much a Shirley Jackson kind of character. Shirley Jackson, who wrote such novels as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, was adept at entering into the then-mostly-uncharted minds of young women who lived in secrets (the mid-20th century in American lit celebrated the liberated male, not the imprisoned female just trying to understand herself). 

In a Shirley Jackson story, there's almost always a woman who's shut off from the rest of the world, usually because of the hostility that world holds for her. Like Eleanor Vance in Hill House, Katherine has come to an isolated place to find something, and it's there that a kind of haunted inner-struggle wages on and burns itself into our minds as we watch. But Jackson, I think, did it better: Her fiction manages to be both true and compelling, where Queen of Earth is often just true. 

As powerful as Elizabeth Moss’s performance is, and as fascinating a study of her breakdown as Alex Ross Perry has created, the movie feels somewhat lifeless. This may be the point: Katherine’s been drained of a kind of vitality. Something about Queen of Earth feels incomplete. It's as though we've never quite been given a risen to care about this character, as sympathetic as she seems. Perhaps it would have worked better as a kind of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? experience. Perry has put Katherine up on the screen like a camp goddess and then made it impossible for us to laugh.

September 06, 2015

Listen to Me Marlon

Listen to Me Marlon may be the saddest, most personal documentary I’ve ever seen. Perhaps that doesn’t sound like a ringing recommendation. But this movie pulls you in and under its spell as it dispels the fascinating, often troubled career and life of Marlon Brando. Perhaps calling Brando the greatest actor ever is an overstatement. But his contribution to modern acting remains undiminished by time, and if you sit down and watch his Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, it’s undeniable that the man had something vital and primal welling up inside him.

One of the best things about Listen to Me Marlon is that it’s not some glorified educational video fitted for the big screen. I must confess that I’m really getting sick of those kinds of docs, even the good ones. They’re like vitamins that we're forced to take for our own good, and that kind of mindset is deadly to a love of the movies. Listen to Me Marlon rethinks the documentary in several ways, but part of this film’s uniqueness stems from a piece of sheer dumb luck. Brando had his face digitized a number of years ago, apparently under the belief that one day actors would all be computerized, not real flesh-and-blood people. Brando also kept a kind of audio diary, and director Stevan Riley has culled the apparently voluminous recorded material and structured it into a compelling narrative. That’s no small feat.

Listen to Me Marlon is also a beautiful-looking film, composed not just of excerpts from the films of Marlon Brando and media coverage of the actor, but illustrated with visuals which complement the narrative and deepen the emotional core of the film. Documentaries are frequently difficult to write about from a cinematic perspective, because they’re so often not very cinematic. They might have been made for television, which makes them visually antithetical to the movie-going experience. Riley has found a way to be true to that experience with Listen to Me Marlon. The colors are stark and dark and moody, and the sound floats over and through us. It's almost an other-worldly sensation, one that heightens our sense of the Brando mythology. To have done it any other way would have, I think, been a kind of betrayal to Brando. 

When we talk about Marlon Brando, we talk about his virtuoso performances in films like A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront and Last Tango in Paris. We talk about how his career, which had stalled for over a decade, was revitalized by Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. We talk about his troubled personal life—including the incarceration of one child and the death of another. We talked about the fact that, for many years, Brando represented a popular American hero. He hailed, appropriately, from the Midwest, and was the product of an abusive father and an unhappy mother who had dashed artistic dreams of her own, but who encouraged her son's love of music and performance. Brando as a teenager became a misfit, a trouble-maker, because he felt isolated; that same isolation would be felt by audiences across the world from the force of his performances on the stage and screen.

Listen to Me Marlon addresses all of this information, but never in a calculated or gossipy way. The film feels intimate and introspective because it is coming directly from the mouth of Brando. It’s a surreal experience to see this grey-white talking head of Brando, which resembles a plaster-of-Paris mask, and hear the voice that sounds very much like Jor-El in Superman, sort of British and very formal and measured and calming. We might just as well be the infant Superman as he careens through space in that weird crystal chamber where recordings of his father play constantly. The experience of Listen to Me Marlon is weightless, dreamlike, and haunting, and does more to honor the profession of acting than anything I've seen in a long time.

Noah Baumbauch is too clever for his own good with the gloriously muddled "Mistress America"

There’s something glorious about a movie trying and not quite succeeding. Mistress America is both a delightful and a frustrating mess of a movie. It’s difficult to comprehend exactly what writers Noah Baumbach (who also directed) and Greta Gerwig (who co-stars) were going for in this, their follow-up to the wonderful Frances Ha (2013). The story follows an impressionable, smart, lonely, college student named Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) and her strange relationship with Brooke (Gerwig), her step-sister-to-be. Tracy is a burgeoning writer (or so she thinks) studying at Barnard College and trying to break into its snobbish literary circle, which has already rejected one of her stories. Brooke is all over the place. She exudes a kind of whimsical self-determination as she pursues her dreams. And Brooke has a lot of dreams. She wants to open a restaurant. She wants to write, maybe. She had an idea for a line of T-shirts, which her former friend and nemesis, Mamie-Claire, allegedly stole from her. She teaches a spinning class, and she sings with a band, and she tutors middle school students, although she hasn’t been to college. But she wants to go to college, maybe, someday, too.

In Frances Ha, Greta Gerwig played a woman who couldn’t get her shit together. I fell in love with that movie and its story of a person in her 20s trying to figure things out and not really succeeding at anything particularly well. Frances Ha put its finger on the pulse of my generation, the millennials (oh, how I despise that word), in a way that felt genuine and truthful and funny. Mistress America is kind of about the same things, but its tone is inconsistent. This movie doesn’t appear to know whether it’s mocking this generation or simply trying to understand them better. Of course, a complex movie can do both, but Mistress America wobbles more than it wonders, and something about its mockish tone feels nasty.

It’s obvious from the beginning that Brooke lives a delusional life, that her great plans are never going to be realized, and that her talk is only talk. Our suspicions are confirmed when Brooke and Tracy decide to visit Brooke’s former friend and current “nemesis” Mamie-Clare (Heather Lind, who’s wonderful in this, and who reminds me of Rose Byrne), who’s married to Brooke’s ex-boyfriend Dylan. The couple live in Greenwich, Connecticut, the epitome of wealthy suburban America, and Brooke needs them to invest in her restaurant because her rich Greek boyfriend Stavros (we never see him) has pulled out of the deal. Tracy convinces her college friend Tony (Matthew Shear) to give them a ride, and Tony’s overly paranoid girlfriend Nicholette tags along. (Nichollette’s fear of Tony cheating on her becomes a pretty amusing running joke.)

The movie crescendos during the extended Greenwich, Connecticut, scene. It’s actually quite funny and clever in a bizarre way, one that feels as though Baumbach were channeling the surrealist humor of French filmmaker Luis Buñuel. (For readers who might not know Buñuel’s work, he often employed a sense of the absurd: His 1972 film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is about a group of well-to-do French politicians and society people who are always trying to meet for dinner, and never actually partake in a meal because of various increasingly comic and surreal interruptions.) Mistress America doesn’t ever become surreal on the level of Buñuel, but it achieves its own Alice-in-Wonderland level of madness.

When Brooke storms into Mamie-Clare’s fancy house, Mamie-Clare is surprisingly courteous, even though she’s in the middle of a book club with all her fancy Greenwich girlfriends. She invites the foursome into her kitchen to wait till they’re finished, and offers them food and drinks. Tony and Nichollette express a desire to participate in the book club, which is discussing Faulkner’s The Hamlet and a biography of Derrida, and Mamie-Clare consents. All of the women in the book club are well-educated women with blossoming careers and babies on the way. “These pregnant women are really smart!” Tony marvels. And as they’re leaving, he bids each of them goodbye by name. (Again, Nichollette interprets Tony’s friendliness as infidelity, and he protests, “She’s seven months pregnant!”) One of the women, Karen (also pregnant), is waiting for her husband to pick her up, but he never comes. She keeps waiting for him, and is eventually pulled into the drama of the scene, when it’s revealed that Tracy has been using Brooke for “inspiration” for her short story.

Suddenly, the feud between Brooke and Marie-Clare dissipates, and a kind of collective shame-fury focuses on Tracy, who’s forced to let everyone read her story. We cut to a scene of Tracy sitting down with the manuscript in hand, while every single person in the room reads silently over her shoulder. Then, Mamie-Clare unleashes a seemingly random series of questions on Tracy in response to the story: “Do you believe in a woman’s right to choose?” And “How would a person who disagrees with a woman’s right to choose be negatively or positively influenced by reading your story?”

This scene is pretty great, because it pokes fun at the high-mindedness of liberal, rich, white people. As a piece of absurdism, it succeeds marvelously. But as a part of the movie, it waffles. Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig are never quite sure what they think of their own characters. Do they care about them? Are they setting them up for mockery? They aren’t even quite sure whether Brooke is a raging exaggerator or just an insouciant dreamer. In this the movie falsely fancies itself complex. It’s really just muddled.

Tracy clearly idolizes Brooke and is devastated by the breaking off of their friendship. When they reconcile at the end—which is admittedly a sweet moment—Tracy offers a phony summing up of Brooke’s character: She’s one of the last cowboys, a rebel whose place in the world is to inspire other people. She’s part of a dying breed, unable to survive in modern society where you constantly have to market yourself. Tracy is too enamored of Brooke to be honest about her, and we never really can trust Brooke, who tries so hard to appear cool and authentic and savvy. She has a lot of layers, but when you peel them back, there’s not much there. Perhaps the movie is the same.

Baumbach probably should have quit while he was ahead. With Frances Ha, he achieved something warm and clever and affecting. Mistress America is a blur of a movie, one that needed to be better worked out in the abstract. The dialogue is often funny in a nonsensical way, as though Baumbach and Gerwig were imitating Joseph L. Mankiewcicz’s dialogue from All About Eve, which crackles with sophisticated, incisive, fizzy little one-liners but also, thanks largely to the performances, achieves a deeper, almost poetic authenticity about fame and money and relationships.

Mistress America doesn’t achieve that level of brilliance, although it tries very hard. (Baumbach and Gerwig might have had better luck if they’d conjured up the spirit of Bette Davis.) In its defense, however, this movie is very much alive. The scenes of Brooke and Tracy in New York (this is a very New Yorky movie), have a fluid, exuberant kick to them, heightened by the luscious synth-pop score by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips. As confounding and half-baked as Mistress America is, I’m glad it exists. It’s an uneven but strangely charming trance of a movie, blithely and happily eccentric. 

September 01, 2015

We Are Your Friends

When a movie like We Are Your Friends disappoints, you can almost hear the naysayers’ self-satisfied approval, because this is the kind of movie people like to see fail: it’s about an aspiring DJ who’s trying to break into the EDM (Electronic Dance Music) world. There’s something about the way this movie wears it 21st-century-youth-culture heart on its sleeve that will likely wrest either scoffs of contempt or unabashed praise from its viewers. I wanted to like We Are Your Friends, and I was hoping for the best: that it would be a funny, clever movie about friendship and struggling to find one’s way, as one does, in one’s 20s.

Part of the problem is that we haven’t yet embraced Zac Efron as a serious actor, although I believe his day is coming (see Neighbors). Efron, like Leonardo DiCaprio during the late 90s, hasn’t yet shaken off the pretty-boy-teen-heartthrob-pop-star image. Eventually, like DiCaprio, Efron will do something that forces mainstream audiences to wake up and acknowledge his talent. Remember how dudes hated DiCaprio during the Romeo + Juliet and Titanic phase of his career? But cut to nearly twenty years later (after films like Gangs of New York and Catch Me If You Can and Inception) and DiCaprio is a favorite among the dude-bros. It’s with more than a little cynicism that I contemplate the fact that dude-bros are my measure for an actors’ mainstream success. But it’s also a reminder that an actor’s talent can break through eventually, given enough time and shortness of cultural memory.

But the larger problem is the fact that We Are Your Friends isn’t very good. It’s ostensibly about the friendship between four guys—best friends—living in the San Fernando Valley. They all dream of getting rich—the quicker the better—and moving out of the Valley, which apparently represents a site of permanent failure. (This feels like a reference only L.A. people will understand. To me, “the Valley” conjures up memories of the great 1983 teen comedy Valley Girl.) The other guys in this friend-group are played by Shiloh Fernandez, Alex Shaffer, and Jonny Weston. Their performances are all strong, but the movie doesn’t develop their friendship enough.

Scenes of these four guys just hanging out would have gone a long way toward cementing their friendship in our brains. We get a little of that. Cole and Dustin room together—in Dustin’s parents’ house—and we see them working on the roof, or cleaning dried leaves out of the empty swimming pool. There’s one scene of Cole and Squirrel (Shaffer’s character) sitting on the beach shooting the breeze, but it lasts nary 60 seconds. In fact, I kept waiting for the director, Max Joseph, to cut sooner.

The film loses sight of this friendship as Cole’s story develops. He becomes enamored of a celebrity DJ named James Reed (Wes Bentley), and falls in love with James’s girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski). Occasionally, Max Joseph (who co-wrote the script with Meaghan Oppenheimer) tries to remind us that he wants us to care about the friendship of these four, but those efforts become increasingly desperate, like when one of them mysteriously dies after a particularly hard night of partying. We never learn what killed him, but Joseph milks the incident for as much character motivation as he can.

I could live with We Are Your Friends if it at least tried to explore the creative process in some meaningful way—even the creative process for an EDM DJ. But the movie doesn’t even give us much of that, perhaps because the filmmakers believed no one but fans of EDM would bother to see this movie, and thus they're preaching to the converted. But it’s not really a movie for people who like that kind of music either, since the EDM we get is pretty banal at best. In fact, I’m not sure to whom this film is supposed to appeal. Perhaps die-hard Zac Efron fans will get the most out of it, but I found little of the charisma and charm and humor of his performance in Neighbors. Maybe if the film were about Efron trying to be a singer, he could have something more interesting to do. At least there would be some singing. 

What exactly is the conflict here? It seems to boil down to a “follow your dreams” movie, so the conflict is anything standing in the way of your dreams. But the movie doesn’t honestly examine itself. The moment when the guys start to question their own dreams of being rich is presented as a kind of self-delusion, which the movie determines to break down by the finale. You can totally follow your dreams, this movie reminds us. Max Joseph even introduces an interesting side-plot, involving a slick real estate businessman played by Jon Bernthal, to prove to these young men (and to us) that the whole adult world is corrupt and only their dreams are pure.

Ultimately, the conception of We Are Your Friends is too lazy to spin any of its promising story threads into something of quality. Instead, this movie feels steeped in all the worst of 21st-century youth culture. It’s considered a moment of great generosity when James Reed gives Cole a Macbook Pro as a gift. I’m surprised Reed didn’t say, “This is a Macbook Pro. It’s equipped with some of the most cutting edge music software available, so now you can make music people will want to listen to.” In my notes, I wrote down a complaint about the character's "costumes". It’s one of the problems of telling modern-day stories about people in their 20s. Everyone wears T-shirts and jeans and Converse shoes. That’s not the kind of apparel that grabs your attention in a movie, and trust me, with a film as disappointingly bland and incomprehensible as this one is, you long for something colorful to look at.