Three-and-a-half out of five stars
In "We Are Your Friends," Zac Efron plays Cole Carter, a D.J. and maker of electronic dance music (EDM) who loves partying with his friends and playing the side room at a club every Thursday night, but he thinks there’s more out there for him. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: One of his friends is a blue-collar boy who doesn’t mind a good fight, another is a hustler looking to make a buck, and the third is a shy, sweet, nerdy type. New friends, and of course a girl, threaten to break up the group, while resentment and jealousy surfaces, etc.
Though we’ve seen this theme a million times, what saves the whole thing from going into cliché territory is that hardly anything is one-note. The blue-collar friend, Mason (played by Jonny Weston), isn’t just an uncouth thug -- he has dreams, too, and makes big, sweet gestures to keep his friends together. Likewise, Cole isn’t all about partying and playing chicks -- he’s thoughtful and angst-y and conflicted when he crosses moral lines.
Also, Wes Bentley, as an alcoholic superstar D.J. who seems to have lost his love for the art but loves the paycheck, is far more nuanced than one might expect -- he’s skillfully a friend, mentor, jerk and narcissist all at the same time. And Emily Ratajkowski shows she has far more range than just being the topless girl in the "Blurred Lines" video and in Gone Girl: there’s warmth and depth there we haven’t seen from her before onscreen.
And it’s all wrapped in a slick package. Director Max Joseph knows when to make the film fun and flashy like an EDM video, and warm and saturated to capture the light and heat of the San Fernando Valley. One scene that stands out centers around a PCP trip gone animated, which was visually interesting enough that I was actually a little sad when it was over.
On the surface, the world of EDM may seem to most people to be about listening to annoyingly repetitive music while doing drugs and dancing all night. And while there’s a fair amount of that in "We Are Your Friends," the film goes to great lengths not to glamorize it -- in fact, it hits you over the head with the dire consequences of reckless behavior. But what the movie also does, which I appreciated, is attempt to explore the musicality behind the genre in a way we don’t often see, especially from a major studio. In its efforts to educate the audience about the scene (though sometimes in a heavy-handed way), "We Are Your Friends" allows the characters to be real people, and not as shallow as we may expect.
While some themes and characters may occasionally border on cliché, "We Are Your Friends" ends up in a place that’s a little smarter and a whole lot more thoughtful than where it starts. And it’s pretty to look at and listen to while you’re getting there.