For better or for worse, director Max Joseph and company have decided to make the definitive movie about the EDM (aka electronic dance music) scene and all its drugs, parties and festivals. But here’s one of those instances where the people most likely to see it are the ones most likely to notice the ways in which We Are Your Friends plays fast and loose with how that whole music scene works. This is inevitable whenever Hollywood gets their hands on a subculture. Hell, I still remember my dad educating me on the ways the inherently ludicrous Days of Thunder (1990) was ludicrous in regards to NASCAR. The same can certainly be said with We Are Your Friends, but this criticism assumes any movie gets things “right.” So drifting away from the semantics of EDM, what’s left is an occasionally enjoyable, sometimes adept little movie that can’t quite tie everything together. There are enough missteps that the parts Joseph nails (at least when he’s not awash in cliches) remain solitary moments and hardly sufficient to pull the film away from its own mediocrity.
The film is basically about the desire to create, and not just create, but to reach greatness — and We Are Your Friends certainly doesn’t stray from the tropes laid down by a century’s worth of cinema about such yearnings. Zac Efron plays Cole, a 23-year-old who lives in his best friend’s (Jonny Weston, Project Almanac) pool house, and — along with his buddies — dreams of escaping the San Fernando Valley and making it to Hollywood, with the bulk of their free time spent partying. Cole’s ticket out is his music. He spends Thursdays DJing in the side room at a nightclub. It’s here that Cole meets James (Wes Bentley), a famous DJ who’s now past his prime and interested in little more than collecting a paycheck. The two strike up a mentor-mentee relationship, with James finding talent in Cole, while Cole also soon finds a friend in James’ much younger girlfriend, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski).
Most of We Are Your Friends focuses on these interpersonal relationships, ones that soon become complicated by Sophie and Cole’s attraction to each other. But beyond that, it’s a film about the desire to create and the search to create something meaningful, even if it’s in the midst of lots of partying and pill-popping. It’s in these moments that Joseph reaches some sense of universality. It’s slight, but there’s a touch of humanity here and there that shows a filmmaker with an attention to detail (Cole entranced by Sophie messing around with the zipper on her jacket is one of these moments). There are even moments of filmmaking with an honest creativity and energy behind them (like one colorful scene where Cole accidentally takes PCP, of all things). But there just aren’t enough of these — especially when faced with a climax that verges on cornball — to truly pull the film up. There’s too “much been there, done that,” too many unlikable characters and not enough cinematic verve. What’s left are some worthy moments, but little else. Rated R for language throughout, drug use, sexual content and some nudity.