About midway through We Are Your Friends, a mentor explains to his deejay protégé that he needs to stop sampling so many other artists and create a unique sound of his own.
That also would have been sound advice for this directorial debut from Max Joseph (who stars in the television show “Catfish”) that chronicles the odyssey of a young electronica prodigy who becomes torn between his longtime buddies and his dreams of stardom. The film overflows with style and attitude, yet it doesn’t have much substance beneath its pulsating beats and intermittently intoxicating visuals.
The story follows Cole (Zac Efron), whose attempts at a breakthrough on the Hollywood club scene are getting him nowhere. So he’s left to engage in mischief with his close-knit friends including Mason (Jonny Weston), Squirrel (Alex Shaffer), and Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez). Things change, however, when Cole encounters accomplished beat master James (Wes Bentley) who agrees to show him the ropes despite his own personal demons.
With Cole’s star on the rise, he begins to distance himself from his buddies and instead takes a liking to James’ alluring girlfriend (Emily Ratajkowski), which forces him to make some tough choices about love and loyalty.
We Are Your Friends contains some moderate insight into the world of dance-club deejays and EDM, such as a peek inside a studio and a formula for how to enliven a subpar crowd. Its soundtrack features a mix of established artists and newcomers.
Yet Joseph seems caught between really delving into that subculture and sanitizing it for mainstream consumption. Only occasionally does the film’s mix of pulse-pounding rhythms and gimmicky graphics pause long enough to take a breath, and then it only offers a predictable romantic subplot and a mildly diverting variation on Entourage.
For his part, Efron is convincing enough as a fledgling artist caught between his past and his future, and Bentley brings depth to his role (even if it’s never entirely clear why his character is so famous or talented). Yet Cole’s BFFs are never fleshed out to the point where his decision to potentially ditch them seems difficult.
It’s a sincere effort that lacks the entrancing power of its music, and moviegoers will likely be left flat-footed.