Like its protagonist—a 23-year-old DJ from the San Fernando Valley—the coming-of-age story We Are Your Friends is sentimental, eager to please, and full of energy. It trades in tried-and-true melodramatic complications, yet the charismatic players deliver them with disarming conviction. Director Max Joseph and editor Terel Gibson keep the movie pulsing with a glut of eye-catching stylistic strategies: Gibson sets much of the action to the rhythms on the soundtrack (the movie often feels like a musical), while Joseph incorporates animation, onscreen text, and extreme high- and low-angle shots. The movie communicates the emotional rush of making music—specifically, electronic dance music, the center of the characters’ lives—and it’s admirably serious in how it depicts the creative process, illustrating the production of EDM songs with the sort of curiosity and reverence that other films grant to painting or writing.
Cole (Zac Efron) is a rising star in the LA club scene but a nobody anywhere else. Lacking a steady job, he lives in the pool house of a high school friend and spends most of his free time loitering with his lovable loser pals. Then Cole catches the attention of an internationally successful DJ, James (Wes Bentley), who takes him on as a protege; he recommits to his music making and spends less time with his old friends. He also gets to know college-age Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), James’s lover cum personal assistant, and slips into a flirtatious relationship with her that anyone can tell will come to no good.
The movie contains a superfluous subplot about Cole going to work for a shady real estate agent, and the third act occasionally devolves into soap opera. But We Are Your Friends is so engaging whenever it deals with music that these shortcomings are easy to overlook. The scenes in James’s studio are among the most effective; Efron and Bentley have nice chemistry as they rhapsodize over obscure musical instruments and reveal what their music means to them. As someone who knows relatively little about EDM, I appreciated the enthusiastic, straightforward lessons about its creation. I also liked a montage late in the film that shows Cole finding inspiration in the world around him for what will be his first serious piece of music. Gibson cuts from the source of one inspiring sound to another, setting a rhythm that anticipates the song Cole will soon write—a nifty way of illustrating how everyday experience can be transmuted into art. v