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We Are Your Friends

August 28, 2015
We Are Your Friends

It would be easy to dismiss We Are Your Friends as late-summer fluff, but that would be a mistake. Going in, I was pretty sure I was going to like the EDM-heavy soundtrack so it would be at least enjoyable. I certainly didn’t expect to find one of the most compelling, touching, and yet transcendently fun movies of the year, all set to a catchy, uptempo groove.

The story itself isn’t terribly new. Cole Carter (Zac Efron) is young and hungry, in this case trying to be a DJ. He lives in the San Fernando Valley — here positioned as the New Jersey to Hollywood’s Manhattan — along with his friends Mason (Jonny Weston), Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez), and Squirrel (Alex Shaffer). They’re slowly working on Mason’s dad’s place as they dream of getting out of the valley and up into the hills.

Strictly speaking, Cole’s dream is less about DJing electronic dance music than producing it, though the two seem to go hand in hand these days. Many DJs do still spin off actual vinyl, but more and more of the tools have been digitized, enabling live sampling, beat-matching, and other turntable tricks from a purely electronic console. And it’s easy enough to drag and drop synthesizer patterns on a laptop to make a track that Cole thinks that’s all there is to it, just like thousands of other aspiring EDM DJs and producers.

Everyone wants to become better than they are, but the hills are a tough, crowded climb from the valley. Ollie wants to be an actor, just like everyone else in Los Angeles. Mason tries to get his popularity by promoting club nights. Squirrel isn’t so clear about what he wants, but he’s the one among the group who can give voice to their desperation. And when their dreams don’t seem to be panning out, the four take jobs with a slick real estate businessman (Jon Bernthal) who only gets shadier and shadier as the story goes.

One night after spinning in a side-room at a club, Cole meets the headlining DJ James Reed (Wes Bentley). James is on the long, slow downslope of his career; he’s still famous, but he’s mostly going through the motions after losing the spark that once drove him. But he sees talent in Cole, and becomes a sort of mentor. Cole also becomes close to James’ assistant and girlfriend, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), which sets up a predictable conflict down the line.

While the elements are nothing we haven’t seen before, their execution is impeccable, and there’s a lot of overlooked value in a familiar story told very well. Co-writer and director Max Joseph comes off a string of music video length shorts and the series spun off of Nev Schulman’s Catfish. He brings that MTV sensibility with him, particularly when Cole delivers a couple hyperactively edited info-dumps. He’s unafraid to experiment stylistically, like in the party at an art gallery where Cole gets dosed; the paint runs off the canvases and absorbs the revelers into a psychedelic animation.

But the real genius here is in subtler touches. James’ big insight to Cole is that while computers and electronics can mix and modify sounds, there’s something inimitable about starting with truly organic sounds. As Cole learns to pay attention to the world around him, the sound editors push the samples just enough to make them stand out: a zipper, a breath, the hum of power lines. It’s a gentle touch, never too much, but it makes all the difference in the world to a story that’s so tied up in the way things sound.

On larger scales, Joseph plays the ebb and flow of the audience every bit as masterfully as Cole plays the crowd on a dance floor. He and co-writer Meaghan Oppenheimer introduce all the themes and lines they need early on, but calmly at first. Then they know just how to fade back and forth, steadily ramping each facet of the story up, and crossing to another just before the current one runs thin. All these things that make up Cole’s life swelling and falling, building on each other until they come together in the track Cole has been waiting his entire life to produce.

We Are Your Friends does have its flaws, most notably the secondary status of women — most of them are party decorations, as in a music video, and Sophie isn’t much more than a distaff riff on the same theme as Cole’s friends — and the strange sight of a nearly Latino-free Los Angeles. These are problems endemic to almost all mainstream American movies, but they’re still problems. I walked away from the screening elated at seeing such a gorgeous work, and disappointed that it wasn’t even more.

It’s possible for us to hold both the greatness of We Are Your Friends and its failures in mind at the same time, just as the movie itself can hear both the celebration and despair when it asks, “are we ever going to be better than this?” Maybe this particular film really couldn’t be made any better, but I hope the filmmakers will take a great first feature and make something even greater next time.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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