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Film review: We Are Your Friends **

By Preston Wilder

 

Can you sing that title? It’s not an idle question, nor a bit of DIY karaoke – because if you can sing it then you must be familiar with the eponymous techno anthem by Justice vs. Simian, which means you may have a rooting interest in this so-so drama with Zac Efron playing a dance-music DJ (or aspiring DJ). Then again, the music is only half the story. The other half is Zac’s wayward life as a young hustler in the San Fernando Valley – and indeed, the point is that Zac must learn how to incorporate his life in his music (by literally sampling it) in order to achieve something “real”, as opposed to the vapid noise generated by these Kids Today behind their computers.

The middle-aged grumpiness is part of the deal – because Zac has a mentor in the form of Wes Bentley, an older DJ who’s played everywhere from Paris to Ibiza and speaks scathingly of Zac’s generation. “You’re not even a real person until you’re 27,” reckons Wes, who has little patience for the maudlin “millennial angst” of today’s 20-somethings. Meanwhile his career is burning out (“He used to be good. Now he gives the people what they want,” notes his protégé), he’s drinking far too much and not really appreciating Emily Ratajkowski (the Other Woman in Gone Girl), his much younger girlfriend and assistant. Looks like Em might be happier with a guy closer to her own age, no?

And Zac? Well, he’s hanging out in the Valley with his gang of friends – doing shots, getting into fights, watching Discovery Channel, handing out flyers to college girls for the shows he plays at the club every week. The friends are combustible Mason (Jonny Weston), with his sagging pants and hair-trigger temper – “Don’t ‘bro’ me if you don’t know me!” he warns a presumptuous punk – drug-dealing Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez) who’s so suave he wears a leather jacket in the summertime, and sensitive Squirrel (Alex Shaffer), who ferries the gang to the club in his Mum’s station-wagon and likes to sit by the beach watching the waves “to clear my head” whenever possible. At one point, there’s a tragedy involving one of the gang – and I’ll be shocked if you can’t guess who gets it.

The club is where they feel most alive – and the model is obviously Saturday Night Fever (though apparently Thursday is the night when the magic happens in the Valley), only with dance music instead of disco. We Are Your Friends doesn’t have the charge of that 70s touchstone, both because Zac Efron isn’t John Travolta and – more importantly – because a DJ isn’t a dancer, just a guy who stands behind the decks. The film tries hard to address this problem, notably in a scene that explains – with diagrams! – exactly how a DJ goes about “rocking a party”: it’s all about bpm (beats per minute), the idea being to “zero in” on the listener’s heartbeat then slowly crank it up to 128bpm, the magic number. Zac does this expertly, bossing the bassline like a pro – and meanwhile Wes is watching from the sidelines, eyes slightly crinkled as if to say ‘Hmm… The kid’s got something’.

The ruse doesn’t totally work: being a DJ still seems pretty dull – but that scene makes it clear that control and manipulation are the film’s true themes, echoed in a scene where Zac (having joined a dodgy real-estate business) cold-calls a customer. That’s a promising hook, the tale of a floundering youngster who seeks (and finds) in music the control he lacks over his life, and We Are Your Friends is also lively (if hackneyed) as a portrait of a raucous LA boy-posse. The only real flaw – but it’s a big one – is the final act, after Zac and Em inevitably get together and the story lurches into obviousness. The last half-hour is a damp squib, fluffing the big confrontation between pupil and mentor: “You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘irreparable’!” sneers Wes, a line that won’t be challenging for a place on the list of Great Movie Putdowns.

What’s left? Not a lot, really. There’s a psychedelic PCP trip, the screen awash in Day-Glo animation. There’s connoisseur Wes treating Zac’s blended spliff with the contempt it deserves (“What are you, French?”). There’s a few bars of Justice vs. Simian in the opening credits. On the list of post-HSM Zac Efron movies, this shiny bauble is several rungs above the hateful That Awkward Moment – yet he still doesn’t look like the finished article (the film flopped badly in the US). To quote Squirrel’s poignant lament, amplified in the musical climax: “Are we ever going to be better than this?”. Hopefully.

 

DIRECTED BY Max Joseph

STARRING Zac Efron, Wes Bentley, Emily Ratajkowski

US 2015                                94 mins

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