“No one thinks they’re a bad person… but I’m not sure I’m a good one,” says Zac Efron at a key moment in We Are Your Friends. Wes Bentley dismisses this with, “you’re not even a person until you’re at least 27”… Max Joseph’s coming of age film may not be unique in its narrative – a kid with big dreams fighting against the odds to succeed – but the savvy mix of nebulous angst and sardonic irreverence (like in the exchange above) is one of many things that keep it feeling fresh, exciting and, for me, one of the most accomplished directorial debuts in years. Efron plays Cole Carter, a kid living in the San Fernando Valley who wants to be a DJ. He and his scrappy bros work every Thursday flyering for a local club but their lifestyle is far from glamorous. They make little money, are constantly being ripped off and feel like losers. In his mind, Cole believes all he needs is “one laptop, some talent and one track” and DJ superstardom beckons, but he soon finds out he’s perhaps not quite as naturally gifted as he thinks and there’s a hell of a lot to learn. Wes Bentley co-stars as James Reed, an ageing DJ who, while still a big name, has turned to alcohol and lost his spark. After a chance meeting outside the club, the pair strike up a friendship and Reed becomes Cole’s mentor. Through Cole, Reed gets to feel the vitality he’s lost and Cole finds a way to channel his unfocused artistic energy into something meaningful. This follows a tried and tested plot that runs through everything from Rocky to Hustle & Flow – marrying an underdog success story with valuable life lessons – but We Are Your Friends has a voice and a style that is entirely of its own. For a debut film, this style is remarkably assured and confident, balancing a complex, nuanced tone with flair. It’s never just black and white. Sometimes there’s a fine line between whether something is dramatic or comedic and – much like a good night out – the mood can turn on a dime. You have to get on board quite early with the fact that you might not ‘like’ all of these characters and what they say/do but, while you’d be embarrassed to hang out with them sometimes, this only reinforces the themes of youthful insecurity and how confidence doesn’t always equate with intelligence. It doesn’t make their journey any less engaging. Jonny Weston’s boneheaded bouncer Mason, for example, spouts baloney like “Don’t bro me if you don’t know me” but it’s this kind of dialogue – stylised meme parlance teetering on the brink of hilarity – that helps the film fly. With a script that’s heavy on speaking, it needs good lines and so many of them are just perfect; self-aware without being self-conscious. Each time it threatens to go overboard, like when Cole’s espousing the virtues of “crushing it” with “massive drops”, it pulls itself back with ease (Reed cuts him off with “You sound like an asshole, all that’s missing is a hashtag”). It’s effortlessly quotable, blending off-kilter humour with wry cynicism. It feels modern but never forced. Earnest and heartfelt but never naïve, the superb performances of the cast (Efron, Bentley and Emily Ratajkowski in particular) bringing it fiercely to life. In the same way that you don’t have to enjoy rap to enjoy 8 Mile or classic rock for Anvil or jazz to like Whiplash (which is sort of like WAYF’s joyless older brother), you don’t have to be into EDM to get something out of We Are Your Friends. It makes the genre accessible for non-fans but, at the same time, the use of actual DJs as consultants on the movie lends a credibility. It’s worth remembering (especially for internet commenters who’ve questioned its integrity) that this isn’t a film that focuses on underground electronica – the DJs it uses and the aspirations of the characters are full-on chart-bothering festival-smashing superstars like Nicky Romero and Alesso. Contrary to what the trailer may suggest, We Are Your Friends neither glamourises nor vilifies club culture – there are highs and lows to the way the scene’s depicted but mostly it uses drugs, DJing and all the rest of it as an allegory for more universal themes about identity, creativity and finding what’s ‘real’ in a world that ever more accelerated and alienated from itself. If anything, the way it depicts DJing is as an exaggerated, almost fantastical aesthetic, similar to Iain Softley’s use of an outlandish imaginary cyber-city to represent computers in Hackers (1995). Obviously, real life isn’t anything like that but Softley chose to depict hacking as speeding through an audio-visual VR wonderland because it was more cinematic and exciting than watching people sit at a desk typing.
Max Joseph does the same here. Just as Hackers showed its characters living almost as their own avatars because that was when they felt at their most ‘real’, the dizzy heights of We Are Your Friends are like an idealised version of clubbing that kicks in when the characters are at their most whole. People might not talk or act like this in reality but then, surely, that’s the magic of cinema right there. And hacking. And DJing. And whatever else you’re passionate about. It’s the magic – that touches fantasy – of being truly alive in the moment of something you love doing, something that you’re really feeling. And this film’s success lies in the way it makes the audience feel. Above all else, We Are Your Friends is a visceral experience. There’s a scene where Zac Efron explains (loosely) the art of DJing and talks about how the first thing you need to do is tune into a crowd’s heartbeat. Once you’ve matched your rhythm to this, they’re in your hands and you can bring them up and down effortlessly. The film does exactly this. Within the first act, it tunes into the crowd’s heartbeat and then just takes you through soaring highs and massive drops – an adrenalised whirlwind of beautiful photography, pounding beats and flawless melodrama. Sure, if it doesn’t hook your heart straight away, you’ll probably miss out on the rest of the experience but then… who wants to be the guy standing in the corner, awkwardly clutching his drink, checking his watch and complaining? Just go with it, bro.
We Are Your Friends is in UK cinemas from August 28th.
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