If Magic Mike XXL was a little too cavalier and free-wheeling for your summer party tastes, now there’s We Are Your Friends, which is like XXL’s syrupy, moralizing second cousin. Whereas XXL opted to forego silly cinematic trappings like caution, or consequences, or, ya know, narrative, this new Zac Efron vehicle presents itself with similar Ecstasy-laced froth, but then the filmmakers force a plot on us and harsh our buzz.
Thing is, there’s a lot of good here, from the surprising performances to the filmmakers’ compulsion for sensory exploration, which allows the film to function for a good portion of its running time like the ultimate Rave Movie. It moves to its own synthesized beat, inviting the audience to feel the propulsive vibe and just flow. There’s so much good, in fact, that it’s all the more depressing when the screenplay occasionally delivers a sequence of such crippling awfulness that the film feels as haplessly shallow as its trailers initially indicate.
In representation, the title We Are Your Friends seems punk enough, though it is pilfered from Simian’s club jam of the same name. In practice, the film rests somewhere between engaging tone poem and standard coming-of-age, follow-your-dreams, inspirational tale of defiance in the face of relentless sameness. After all, nothing is worse than being part of a crowd, right? That is the central question that drives Cole Carter (Efron), who is an aspiring DJ living in the San Fernando Valley with three enterprising-but-unsuccessful friends. Cole spins at low-rent clubs for chump change and parties the night away, but what is his vision? Where is he going?
These typical aspirational questions of the young and unsatisfied are given serendipitous guidance when Cole meets superstar DJ James Reed (Wes Bentley) outside a club. Cole offers James a hit off his spliff, which allows James to school him on the value of pure pot smoking, in a sequence so reminiscent of Ricky Fitts smoking with Lester Burnham in American Beauty that it almost feels like self-parody. They go to a party and get blitzed on PCP, where Cole trips out in rotoscope animation, and we get a sense that this film can be playfully experimental with tone and style, and we hope the screenplay avoids square-jawed narrative pitfalls.
On the subject of narrative pitfalls, an illicit romantic subplot is swiftly introduced (cue a synthesized groan), whereby Cole is inexorably drawn to James’ assistant/girlfriend, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski). There’s sexual tension and emotional fireworks, and it’s all really okay since James is a philandering drunk anyway, but these actors are all so good that we roll with it. The script’s tepidly earnest storytelling flourishes feel like lulls we wade through in between the movie’s bread-and-butter sequences of club thump-driven tonal choreography.
There is an unspoken chemistry here between the camera, the soundtrack, and the actors, and there’s something vaguely magical when they all coalesce in a wordless carnival of sound and motion. It’s like director Max Joseph is inviting the audience to surrender to the music, and we do. There’s real cinematic value in that. But whenever the screenplay, by Joseph and Meaghan Oppenheimer, pivots from that purity, it gets mired in a bog of subplot. The would-be love triangle is really the least offensive element; the inevitable sanctimonious notes on the perils of drugs and partying is worse, and an inexplicable side jag in which Cole takes a job with a slimy mortgage negotiator (Jon Bernthal) really brings the film to a halt. But then it strikes that beat again and we start pulsing, and all is right with the world. We Are Your Friends is best when it lives in that pulse, when it can take over our id and make us forget our problems – and the film’s.