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.

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