This is an admittedly late review, but considering no one saw box office bomb of the century We Are Your Friends, I’m not sure it really matters anyway. What’s interesting about this teen dramedy’s huge disappointment is that the reviews have been fairly mixed, without anyone really saying that the quality is as bad as its performance, and that Zac Efron’s continual drive toward being considered a quality adult actor has continued to stall.
It’s not that Efron is untalented, because anyone who has seen films like Charlie St. Cloud, That Awkward Moment, Neighbors, or The Paperboy knows that he has decently good chops and charisma as an actor, but his choices have been bogged down by inconsistent and sappy or juvenile scripts. His performances are always fine, also surrounded by quality actors like Miles Teller and Michael B Jordan (That Awkward Moment), Matthew McConaughey and Nicole Kidman (The Paperboy), Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne (Neighbors), or the entire cast of this generation’s Hairspray. This film is no exception, where the performances are decent, Efron being joined by Wes Bentley and Emily Radajkowski creates a pretty strong love-triangle that only a flawed script and desire for a teen audience weighs down, typical for Efron’s choices.
In this teen drama go-around, Efron is Cole Carter, an aspiring DJ who is talented enough to make a leap if given the right opportunity. His immediate friend group consisting of Shiloh Fernandez, Alex Shaffer, and Jonny Weston all work to put people in the club, giving Cole a chance to spin. Cole then meets James Reed (Wes Bentley) and his girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), who offer him a place to record new music and to open for James, an accomplished millionare DJ, at California’s summer-fest. Cole begins jeopardizing his relationship with his friends as he gets more involved with James, and jeopardizes his relationship with James when Sophie and Cole start a fling together.
The film’s strength, as stated before, lies mainly with its love triangle and the teacher/student scenes of Efron with Wes Bentley. These three characters and how their decisions impact each other give the film a real emotional core that was surprising. If one element of this mostly unnecessary and worthy of a straight to DVD release film is redeemable, it’s clearly the fact that it knows how to craft an interesting center with characters that you care about. Even his admittedly under-developed friends have enough characterization that you care about Efron’s relationships with them. When things become too much about the partying or about drug use or even too much about the music, the film loses its flow. The gimmick of ‘DJ and EDM’ stylizing is not the reason the film is a passable watch, it’s that fact that first time director Max Joseph has created a main core and atmosphere that we care about.
Wes Bentley as the drunken teacher provides a sturdy, anchored performance that the film can be structured around. While Efron is fine, and Emily Ratajkowski is still getting her feet wet as an actor, it’s Bentley who delivers the most nuanced performance. It’s because of this that we get a character whose morality is neither good or bad, creating more palpable characters out of Efron’s friends. Is their jealously warranted or not? It’s also nice to see a film that doesn’t just take place in New York because it can, this shows a lower, more run-down California-valley setting, and it has a charm to it that we like.
The flaws do pile on after awhile, as the film sinks under its own weight throughout the bloated running time. Eventually, small character arcs cease to be, and we even stop getting anything out of Emily Ratajkowski in the third act. If we were to believe for a second that things weren’t going to work out perfectly for Efron, there would be some tension, but there isn’t. He keeps all of his friends, he gets the girl, he loves his mentor, etc etc etc. It’s a staple for a ‘coming-of-age’ film like this to show a character eventually get what he wants, but it slowly becomes less and less interesting as the plot begins to focus solely on the music aspects. Not that I’m a hater of EDM, but once the movie put in a few scenes about Efron explaining how and why he is a DJ, it became only a gimmick for the rest of the movie to work behind. Once it becomes the focus, there’s not enough of an emotional connection to what he’s doing, and the film because completely uninteresting. Plus, the ‘finale’ where he plays a song full of hints and bits picked up during the course of the main action is just plain silly and wildly far-fetched. The third act really suffers from just sincere stupidity. It tries to be more than a teen drama, and is often, but never reaches a consistent level of the good subplots and the mostly weak overplot as a whole.