Part electronic dance music tutorial and part love letter to Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, "We Are Your Friends" is a surprisingly accessible and sweet story of a group of friends standing on the cusp of adulthood with big ambition and little direction.
Regardless of your taste for pulsing electronic music or actor Zac Efron, both are undeniably appealing in this feature debut from director and co-writer Max Joseph. Though the plot may be predictable, Joseph energizes his coming-of-age musical romance with creative animation, explosive dance scenes, and a vibrant soundtrack that's like an entree to the EDM genre. And Efron brings such heart to the main character, he's easy to root for.
For Cole (Efron) and his buddies, the glittery promise of Hollywood is so close, they can practically see it from their hometown 10 miles away in the Valley's suburban sprawl. Cole is an aspiring DJ, and his three childhood friends are his associates and entourage. There's his best friend and would-be manager, Mason (Jonny Weston), drug dealer and acting hopeful Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez), and the requisite quiet, sensitive guy, Squirrel (Alex Shaffer). All of them dream of escaping the Valley and finding success "over the hill."
When Cole isn't out jogging or partying with his pals, he's in front of his computer, mixing sounds and beats into what he hopes will become the signature song that launches his career.
"If you're a DJ," he says in voiceover, "all you need is a laptop, some talent, and one track."
Cole's luck starts to change when he meets older, established DJ James Reed (Wes Bentley), who immediately and inexplicably takes Cole under his wing and becomes his mentor. Cole covets Reed's life, from his worldwide fame and hilltop home to his gorgeous girlfriend/assistant, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski). Reed, though, doesn't seem so thrilled. Bentley is perfectly disaffected as the seen-it-all club veteran who parties away his days and nights, a personified cautionary tale.
Meanwhile, Cole and his friends look for more reliable income by taking day jobs at a mortgage company run by a man with obvious wealth but dubious ethics. Here they get a glimpse into the unrewarding alternative to achieving their dreams. Thus, the career challenges for today's 20-somethings look much like those of anyone coming of age in middle-class America since the 1960s.
Sophie, like Cole and his crew, is frustrated by emerging adulthood and searching for success. Reed encourages a friendship between Sophie and his protégé, suggesting they can go out and "talk about your millennial angst."
When Cole and Sophie become more than friends – as you knew they would – the young DJ's future with Reed and access to big-time gigs comes into question.
"We Are Your Friends" is less a story of millennial angst than a formulaic coming-of-age romance set against the colorful backdrop of rave parties and electronic music. It's also amusingly educational with its inventive animation explaining how DJs inspire audiences to dance by illustrating how the human circulatory system responds to various beats-per-minute. EDM devotees might find this trite, but it's a friendly invitation for the unfamiliar.
Director Joseph (best known as a host and producer of the MTV series "Catfish") captures the vital energy of EDM parties, providing a peek into a world not often seen on the big screen. He shoots the wide suburban streets of the sun-baked Valley in such a way that the images almost look like they're from another time.