"Are we ever gonna be better than this?" Cole Carter (Zac Efron) entreats his hyped, pulsating crowd. We Are Your Friends, directed by Max Joseph, isn't quite sure of the answer to that question. As an audience, you wish this promising but generic film was better than this. Friends injects a throbbing beat and fresh style into a classic coming-of-age tale, but all the electronic dance music and formal experimentation can't keep it out of the mire of a well-worn narrative.
The title We Are Your Friends is a curious one too, because with friends like these — run as far away as possible. In fairness, Cole is trying to do just that. His scrappy San Fernando Valley foursome is rounded out with a club promoter (Jonny Weston), actor-slash-drug dealer (Shiloh Fernandez), and requisite hanger-on (Alex Shaffer). Cole, an aspiring DJ, is the talent of the operation, and he tries to ditch these jokers every chance he gets. One night he crashes a party with legendary DJ James Reed (Wes Bentley), which sends everything topsy-turvy, but soaring into the world on top of the hill, out of the valley.
James takes him on as a protégé, though matters are complicated by James' irresistible girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), on whom Cole harbors a burning crush. Nevertheless, the trio manages to work it out until the inevitable molly-enhanced Vegas rave roll in the hay complicates things further. Will Cole get the gig at Summerfest? Will Sophie work it out with alcoholic James? Can Squirrel and the gang keep up this rate of partying? You can probably hazard a guess at how all of these dilemmas work out.
There are some pseudo class-struggle themes shoveled in to make it seem topical and to inspire some sympathy for Sophie and Cole, but They're just too beautiful to feel bad for. Unfortunately, for the underdeveloped subplot, every time someone says "housing market," or "foreclosure," it makes it feel very 2010, and less hyper-contemporary.
Efron brings his gorgeous, bright-eyed wonder to the role of Cole, who seems constantly surprised by the world around him. Ratajkowski doesn't quite find the right groove. Playing a defensive too-cool girl, it almost seems like she can't be bothered to be there. She excels at being eye-candy, a trait for which she was no doubt cast.
Joseph's direction offers an energetic take on the material, incorporating text visualization, quick-cutting montages, and creative uses of animation to bring the thumping electronic music to cinematic life. Coupled with almost documentary-style shooting, it's a compelling visual and aural experience, and when the soundtrack is going off, almost anything can be forgiven. Unfortunately, it's when the music stops that the film's originality does too.