In “We Are Your Friends,” Zac Efron achieves the impossible. He makes a hero out of a bro.
In the strangely moving EDM fable, up-and-coming disc jockey Cole Carter (Efron) is in the San Fernando gutter, gazing at the stars. It’s 2015 yo, and the American Dream is as grandiose as ever; Cole and his buddies, played by Jonny Weston, Shiloh Fernandez and Alex Shaffer, are born-and-raised Valley boys fixated on escaping their lowlife lulls. Their maxim: Get rich or die tryin’. The quartet has sternly rejected whatever path may have been laid out for them, so instead of textbooks and college dorms, they take to the world of nightclub promotion. But while Cole’s crew prefers to get drunk and get high and get laid, he likes to play music.
“All you need is a LAPTOP, SOME talent, and ONE track,” he says, having streamlined his ambitions into a scientific formula. Beats Per Minute’s effect on heart rate and musculoskeletal diagrams all flash onscreen as his voiceover describes the DJ’s purpose to get people moving, ‘cause for Cole here, dance music is as essential as a pulse. Sooner than later the devotion to his craft garners the attention of James (Wes Bentley), a pseudo has-been producer who becomes Cole’s mentor. One opportunity to open for James at a major fest, and a personal assistant love interest (Emily Ratajkowski) later, and our humble hero’s got less time for his not-so-well-to-do pals; plagued by the millennial hunt for instant gratification, they strive to make money like the guy who invented Instagram, and other than that, well, turn up.
Which is a prominent reason “We Are Your Friends” charmed me so. The screenplay, penned by Meaghan Oppenheimer and first-time director Max Joseph, hones so masterfully in on a very real youth scene, where like it or not, MDMA and vapid raving are pretty solid fixtures. The film tells no lies about drug use; in an especially fun moment Efron blacks out after smoking a joint that may or may not have been laced, slinking away as the partygoers around him are engulfed in psychedelic, rainbow-colored rotoscope. The MPAA deemed such sequences worthy of an R-rating, while in Canada 14 year olds are allowed entry — which explains the horde of rambunctious boys and girls who invaded the row foremost mine, only to hush silent once the image of Zac Efron’s Greek-god shoulders appeared beneath a shower stream. Will tweens flock to sneak in the same way they did for Harmony Korine’s drug-fueled flick of 2013? Like his “High School Musical” co-star before him, “We Are Your Friends” must be Zac Efron’s “Spring Breakers.”
Not to say the film isn’t readily cliché, because that’s precisely what it is. The boys wade in the nightlight hue of a swimming pool belting out Sublime’s “Santeria,” the nostalgic equivalent of the Spring Breakers gals’ Britney Spears. Growing up is painful. But it’s fashioned Zac Efron peak-bro, the most gorgeous bro money can buy — yet beyond the seductive puppy eyes is one of the more fleshed-out and root-for-able protagonists of the summer box office. In alignment with all great American rags to riches stories, from “Rocky” to “The Social Network,” the monomyth is at play here. He’s a contemporary man with desires facile — after all, what’s more -now- than aspiring to be the next Avicii? I’ve never shared the same dream, and I’m not hugely immersed in the beat-dropping realms of current, yet “We Are Your Friends” makes it all seem so appealing.
As much as I knew the characters I saw onscreen, I don’t. I don’t know the suntanned L.A. fever dream, the model-filled parties with instagram-ready visages, or even the carefree joy of being among friends in neon tank tops at one of those electro festivals, alive. The movie made me want to be a part of the whole thing, the sweet frat boy fantasy — because erroneously I imagine them tweeting away under the sun, on the lookout for the next soirée, never grappling with the same anxieties I do. How does it feel to be entrenched in simple modernity the way these characters are? Why are these not my friends? There’s also, as part of the allure, some sort of unspoken subversive queer principle one could apply to this effervescent bruh culture.
Musically, you get exactly what you’d expect — infectious techno ragers if you’re one who’d go out alongside Efron and co, or maybe if you’re a purist or over the age of 35, mere abrasive noise. Brett Pawlak’s cinematography is pretty consistently impeccable, however, reaching dazzling heights in a Vegas-set romance sequence that’s shot like something from recent Terrence Malick. “We Are Your Friends” is not cinematic brilliance all across the board — it steers away from it so unnecessarily with an out-of-place death, say, or the moment Cole betrays his Christlike persona by igniting a party brawl. But when it comes to EDM, it’s about the build-up, the high that wouldn’t exist without the previous lows, the exultation. That genre’s aesthetic informs the tone and pace of the film, and so when the euphoria does hit, artificially-induced or not, it’s still felt overwhelmingly.
At the day’s close, Cole Carter achieves the freedom to live, having learned some valuable, deep-house-scored lessons on the importance of friendship and being true to oneself. Efron continues to prove his prowess as leading man, as the “High School Musical” lad grown into his adult skin even when he’s still portraying a boy next door who hops around to music. He and the filmmakers caused me to feel deeply about the tribulations of the sort of people I might avoid, at parties, clubs and shows, and for that, “We Are Your Friends” is well worth the admission. As for you under-eighteen Efron fans, you’ve got my full blessing to sneak your way in.