The style of music known as EDM, short for electronic dance music, can sometimes be made by someone alone on a laptop with a pair of headphones, then played at throbbing volume for enormous high-energy crowds. That tension between intimacy and boisterousness motivates a lot of the movie “We Are Your Friends,” which stars Zac Efron as an aspiring musician with a laptop and a dream.
The debut feature of director Max Joseph, the movie never quite decides if it wants to be a sensitive drama of self-actualization or a playful party movie and ultimately misses the mark on both counts.
The movie is visually inventive and with enough good moments and smart moves to never be entirely dismissible, while not strong enough to overcome its essential thinness. It would be easier to grapple with “Friends” if it just went full-on youth exploitation picture, some sort of techno and Molly update of a 1960s hippies and bikers, pot and LSD panic movie. Then it could just function as good-natured trash, but it takes itself a little too seriously for that.
From a screenplay credited to Joseph and Meaghan Oppenheimer, the story follows Efron’s character, Cole, as he struggles to make it out of L.A.'s San Fernando Valley and over the hill to stardom in the world of Hollywood clubland and beyond, with his three best friends (Jonny Weston, Shiloh Fernandez, Alex Shaffer) along for the ride. Cole falls under the tutelage of a star DJ, James Reed (Wes Bentley), himself burning out fast on the scene and its superficial trappings.
Cole falls quickly for James’ assistant-slash-girlfriend, Sophie, played by model turned actress Emily Ratajkowski, previously seen in “Gone Girl.” Cole and his friends take jobs with a shady mortgage hustler, Paige (Jon Bernthal), which initially points toward establishing a competing mentor figure for Cole. It’s an intriguing idea that the screenplay never fully works into the overall story, so those scenes wind up feeling like a separate movie.
Efron, who has long-since proved himself a capable actor, can only do so much with the material here. He has been referencing “Saturday Night Fever” while promoting the movie, and the comparison is useful for pointing out the shortcomings of “We Are Your Friends.” Grittier and darker than its subsequent reputation as a good-times disco time capsule, “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) was about the distance between dreams and reality, how the triumphant dance-floor freedom of John Travolta’s Tony Manero was something the rest of his life likely would never match. “We Are Your Friends” remains very committed to the idea of making it, that Cole and Co. will eventually live out their dreams.
A movie that “Friends” is closer to actually is “Foxes,” Adrian Lyne’s 1980 drama about a group of girlfriends from the Valley who come into Hollywood looking for nightlife excitement and get in way over their heads. Starring Jodie Foster and Cherie Currie of the band the Runaways, the film featured music by EDM godfather Giorgio Moroder and remained committed to its dramatic underpinnings in ways that “Friends” does not. Joseph can’t allow his film to fully make that leap; “Friends” wants to believe that the party can, in fact, never stop.
Released earlier this year, the unfortunately little-seen French film “Eden,” directed by Mia Hansen-Love, more delicately and touchingly explores the chasm between the euphoric highs and desperate isolation of a DJ’s life, at the party but not a part of it. At one point in “We Are Your Friends,” Cole plays James a track he is working on and James mentions that the song is trying to be too many things at once.
It is part of the frustration of “We Are Your Friends” that it is hard to tell whether Joseph and his collaborators were aware they were including such a sharp, spot-on critique of their film smack in the middle of it.
‘We Are Your Friends’
Rated: R, for language throughout, drug use, sexual content and some nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: In wide release