This presumptuous movie that came out of nowhere is the directorial debut of Max Joseph, also the co-writer, who has done mostly short-form documentary work since 2008. It follows Cole (Zac Efron), an aspiring DJ living in San Fernando Valley. He finds himself torn between the ambitions of his friends and the path being led by his mentor, James (Wes Bentley).
In an interview, Zac Efron said that We Are Your Friends is like this generation’s Saturday Night Fever. Despite the fact that we already have another film that has beaten WAYF to the punch in that regard, he is right in that his film certainly owes a debt to films like Saturday Night Fever. They both involve protagonists who are leading two different lives, one that is mundane and going nowhere and the other is lively, seductive, it’s where he feels like he has the opportunity to be who he wants to be. Whereas Saturday Night Fever dealt in disco, WAYF deals in the world of DJs and EDM (a genre that I’m not too familiar with, if I’m being honest). However, there are many things that hold WAYF from being the social realist examination of a DJ’s ambitions that it clearly wants to be.
The biggest problem with the film is simply that it is far too formulaic. Every story beat you can imagine with the set-up I described will very likely happen. Many are telegraphed very obviously and do not come off as surprising or meaningful as they needed to be. The screenplay also finds itself distracted by elements that don’t seem necessary. The big one is the subplot involving the guys taking a job with a skeevy scam artist who preys on people about to experience foreclosure (played by Jon Bernthal). It’s a subplot that could be easily cut out because it adds nothing to the story on a thematic level. It builds up to a moment that you see coming and the lesson that the characters are supposed to learn from it feels disingenuous and pointless in context of the rest of the movie. A lot of these rough patches make it unclear what it is that the filmmakers are trying to say with the movie. Then there are also the friends, who are admittedly acted well by Shiloh Fernandez, Alex Shaffer and Jonny Weston. They’re not bad characters in theory, but again, when things go the formulaic route, it becomes harder and harder to care about their situation. They are kind of too “bro-y” for my taste as well, and certain moments feel like what you get when you raise a kid with nothing but episodes of Entourage. The script simply isn’t willing to take some of the necessary risks that a film like this should, since it finds itself dealing with the realistic struggles of fame and ambition, but later takes an unrealistically optimistic note that doesn’t fully ring true.
The setbacks only make it more disappointing when you can see how promising it is with genuinely inspired sequences. I like how Max Joseph captures a sense of melancholy within the sun-drenched landscape of the Valley, with practically every bit of sweat on the characters glowing in the blazing sunlight. The film also has a particular look somewhere between music video and soda commercial, which combines warm, intimate imagery with kinetic and stylish editing and composition. It’s a hard style to pull off, but it works especially well here on a profoundly cinematic level. At least, it works mostly in the first half where many of the best and unique moments of the film occurs, as opposed to the second half which dials down the style a bit. It still manages to capture some fantastic moments though. One of the best scenes in the films is set at a party in James’ house. Cole is talking to James’ assistant/girlfriend, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski). He tells her how he takes control of the crowd, and he essentially boils it down to a science where he keeps the bpm increasing in rate and synchronicity with the music and the crowd’s heartbeats. There’s a certain pleasure that comes with seeing an artist work their magic and that sequence is one I’ll remember for a long time.
The performances are also quite strong across the board. Zac Efron, I think, has proven to be a promising actor as he continues to transition to more risky and adult roles. This is one of his better performances, even if the script doesn’t quite give him the material at the same level. Wes Bentley is great as James. He manages to add a touch of depth and humanity to an otherwise clichéd character. The biggest surprise is likely Emily Ratajkowski, who shows that she has an actual screen presence with some personality and not just another pretty face. I’d like to see what she can bring with a better script. Jon Bernthal is given the least to work with and he ends up making little of an impression. It’s not a bad performance, but the script gives him nothing. There aren’t any nice touches to his character like with what Wes Bentley was able to do.
We Are Your Friends isn’t a good movie, but it’s not for the lack of trying. The problem lies in a screenplay that is nowhere near as smart and thematically cohesive as it wants and needs to be, especially if it wants to live up to classics like Saturday Night Fever. However, it’s not a waste of time. There are moments that flourish in style, personality, and eccentricities that are so unique to this movie, even if they become few and far between. Those moments that stand out among the otherwise standard, formulaic scenes elevate the film into something that is harmless enough overall and, at times, genuinely compelling. There are good performances all around, and some interesting exploration into the depths of millennial angst, there’s just not enough connective tissue holding all the good elements together. It’s worth a watch if you stumble upon on it on Netflix or on cable. It might not be wholly memorable, but it shows promise for Max Joseph as director (who is frankly better off handing script duties to someone else). It definitely doesn’t deserve to be one known just as a film with one of the worst opening weekends for a wide-release ever. After all, it makes the brilliant contribution to society with the phrase “Don’t ‘Bro’ me, if ya don’t know me.”