We Are Your Friends

Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated R for language throughout, drug use, sexual content and some nudity.
Running time: 96 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

Similar to “Paper Towns,” “We Are Your Friends” is a movie that I liked but I would have loved if I were 20 years younger. It’s about making mistakes in your 20s, about dancing all night and drinking too much and hooking up with random people, but also about yearning and striving to escape the trappings that have defined you throughout your life. It’s about the youthful, idealistic desire to be great. Like, right now.

Director and co-writer Max Joseph’s debut feature is also a straight-up blast to watch, with great energy, a joyous soundtrack, some clever visual tricks (as well as some that get annoying) and gorgeous actors running around a Los Angeles that’s both gritty and glamorous. Cinematographer Brett Pawlak, who also shot the intimate and insightful “Short Term 12,” really captures the hot sprawl of the San Fernando Valley: the soaring cypress trees, buzzing electrical lines and block after block of nondescript, mid-century tract houses.

That is where aspiring DJ Cole Carter (Zac Efron) is stuck alongside his childhood friends Mason (Jonny Weston), Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez) and Squirrel (Alex Shaffer). He shares a bedroom in Mason’s house where he sits in front of his laptop all day, headphones clamped to his ears, pressing various buttons that make various blippy sounds. (Your enjoyment — or even your tolerance — of electronic dance music will greatly influence your reaction to “We Are Your Friends,” which takes its title from a song by Justice.) Sometimes he helps Mason fix the roof. Sometimes he smokes a joint. Mostly he dreams of riches and stardom but doesn’t seem to work terribly hard to achieve them.

That is, until he meets one of his idols one night at a club: a longtime DJ named James Reed (Wes Bentley) who exemplifies the kind of jet-setting life he covets. In no time, James has taken Cole under his wing: bringing him to parties, welcoming him into his home and studio and helping him hone his sound. James is a wreck — a sellout and a functioning alcoholic — but he’s also charismatic as hell and the voice of reason. Bentley rides a tricky and fascinating line between charm and menace (although the facial hair alone suggests he’s not to be trusted) which makes “We Are Your Friends” more compelling and substantive than you might expect.

Efron, though, is easy to underestimate because he’s so damn pretty. He’s made eclectic choices in recent years (“Neighbors,” “The Paperboy”) which simultaneously showcase and subvert his looks. His character here isn’t so deeply drawn as others he’s played post-“High School Musical,” but Efron makes the arc believable. Both his cockiness and his comeuppance seem effortless.

Both characters are understandably drawn to Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), a Stanford dropout who’s as brainy as she is beautiful. She’s James’ personal assistant/live-in girlfriend, but she becomes Cole’s running buddy and, eventually, something more. At first, it seems as if Ratajkowski is merely playing a version of the role she played in the “Entourage” movie (which was a version of herself), but the script from Joseph and Meagan Oppenheimer eventually allows her to reveal some spine and some melancholy shadings, both of which are appealing.

Speaking of “Entourage,” the comparisons are inevitable. Cole and his pals come off initially as a douchey, “Muppet Babies” version of the dudes from that HBO series. There are even four of them, each of whom (sorta) jibes with those characters. But then it occurred to me afterward that perhaps that was the point — that they’re intentionally rendered as bro stereotypes as a commentary on the idiocy of their bravado, and to allow them to quote-unquote learn something throughout the course of the film, which they do through a couple of subplots that force them to grow up.

It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, this story of an aspiring artist/athlete/investment banker/fill in the blank who finds himself under the tutelage of a seductive but damaged mentor, whom he ultimately tries to usurp. But it’s done with great style: words popping up to accompany the narration, or an art-gallery drug trip rendered in rainbow-hued animation. And if you’ve ever wondered what the ideal tempo is to get the dance floor grindy and sweaty, it’s 128 bpm, which we learn through an amusing tutorial that fuses science and music.

The final performance scene before a packed crowd in downtown Los Angeles bursts off the screen, and Efron’s evident catharsis feels earned. It’s the perfect one-last-blast movie for the end of summer.

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