Consider the tears of Zac Efron, how they glisten there on his inhumanly perfect if not supremely expressive face — those blue, blue eyes, that luminous, ever so slightly orange skin.
He, or rather his character Cole, sheds a few during a particularly emotional DJ set in We Are Your Friends, an EDM saga directed by Catfish co-host Max Joseph, who wrote the screenplay with Meaghan Oppenheimer. If crouching over a laptop and a mixer isn't the most inherently cinematic aspect of making music, well, DJing a giant outdoor festival isn't the most obvious place in which to attempt a swelling emotional moment either. It's better suited to batting away beach balls and indulging in a few triumphant fist pumps.
Like most of We Are Your Friends, the scene in which Efron manfully brushes away tears while yelling, "Are we ever gonna be better than this?" into a microphone to the bouncing crowd should be ridiculous. Instead, it works almost magically well — broetry in motion. Its poignance comes from the film's desire to treat the aspirations and emotions of its tender-hearted, kinda dim hero seriously while maintaining enough distance to feel wiser and more mature than he is. (In that, it's a better movie answer to Entourage than the actual Entourage movie was.)
Efron's frat-boy earnestness gives Cole, a character who wants only to clamber his way out of the San Fernando Valley and to the status of top-tier DJ, an unforced sweetness, while the movie's modest aims mold themselves comfortably around Efron's actorly skill set. We Are Your Friends turns out to be one of those matches of performer and project that bring out the best qualities in each other.
Cole's not a complicated guy. He likes his girls pretty, his music danceworthy, and his friends forever at his side: fast-talking Mason (Jonny Weston), aspiring actor/practicing drug dealer Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez), and Squirrel (Alex Shaffer), who, despite the nickname, is more of a puppy. They look down at the Los Angeles cityscape like it's a world, not a few miles on the freeway, away. They sing Sublime's "Santeria" after a party like it's a hymn. They're sure greatness is on its way, even if only Cole and Ollie really have anything like a plan, and even if those plans mostly involve getting famous.
Cole lives in the pool house behind Mason's parents' house and DJs a side room at a club in Silver Lake. Mason acts as his de facto manager and Ollie deals and Squirrel provides the car. They have epic nights out and split the money. Their hustle is, at least for Cole, one of choice — he had the option to go to college but declares school "a waste of time," though Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), who catches his eye one night, sagely points out that that's only true if you're actually doing something worthwhile with the years you're saving. That same evening he meets James (Wes Bentley), a DJ who's still a big name, but who's past his prime. Cole gets taken under James' wing and into Sophie's bed, a combination that eventually poses problems, since Sophie is both James' assistant and his lover.
Despite its naked attempts to be a sweeping millennial statement — James, who's played by the 36-year-old Bentley but is written, amusingly, like a crabby, pickled geriatric, makes multiple "your generation" references to his protégé and his girlfriend — We Are Your Friends is built using a trusty old template.
It's Saturday Night Fever, it's The Graduate, but it also feels like one of those '90s movies so intent on capturing a cultural moment (like Human Traffic or Empire Records) that they were endearingly outdated before production even wrapped. Cole delivers a lecture on how to get a crowd dancing that includes bringing everyone's heartbeat up using BPMs, but EDM is just a scene to be plugged into a coming-of-age story that's ultimately about realizing that moving forward means leaving some things, and some people, behind.
We Are Your Friends and another DJ-centric movie, Eden, have bookended this summer. Eden, directed by Mia Hansen-Løve and based in part on her brother's experiences, sprawls more than a decade and charts the rise and fall of the French house scene alongside the career of its main character. We Are Your Friends is an enthusiastically pop product that throws explanatory text on screen, relies on zippy montages, and includes an ending that, while not completely tidy, is rooted in a "believe in yourself" pronouncement.
But both movies have this inescapable wistful streak, as if its characters are forever looking forward or looking back, the present a harder thing to hold onto. "This moment, here with you guys? This is honestly my favorite part — the moment before it starts," Squirrel says before the boys head out, the anticipation better than the party itself.
Maybe We Are Your Friends has a happy ending because it cuts out before things turn too real.