As former teen idols go, Zac Efron is underrated. He can sing and dance (the “High School Musical” trilogy), be funny (“17 Again”) or quite frightening (“Neighbors”).
Now in “We Are Your Friends,” the 27-year-old proves he can portray aimless angst with sincerity.
But the plot lets Efron down, starting awkwardly and meandering for stretches. Eventually this DJ-centric movie finds a respectable groove.
Efron plays Cole, a San Fernando Valley lifer who skipped college to promote parties and dabble in electronic music.
He explains his lone career strategy: “All you need is a laptop, some talent and one track.”
Together with his townie best friends, charmer Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez), nerdy Squirrel (Alex Shaffer) and psycho Mason (Jonny Weston), he’s simply happy imbibing the excesses of L.A.’s vapid club culture.
Then he meets James (Wes Bentley bringing a fine performance to a cliché part). The once-pioneering DJ seems to have it all — he packs venues around the world and flaunts his material good fortunes. He’s also a burned-out alcoholic who’s particularly callous to his girlfriend-assistant, Sophie (“Blurred Lines” model Emily Ratajkowski, who’s almost as pretty as Efron).
James dismisses Cole’s wannabe tracks as a “cute sense of assemblage” but takes a liking to the novice. In return, Cole takes a liking to Sophie.
This volatile love triangle stirs the would-be DJ to discover that fabled “one track.”
The title of the film derives from a club hit of the same name by the French duo Justice, a remix of “Never Be Alone” by British act Simian. Don’t worry if none of that jars the memory; “We Are Your Friends” hardly offers a historical exposé of this music circle. It’s more of a backdrop for the characters to drift by.
There is a rather interesting sequence that analyzes the math behind beats per minute (BPMs) and how a DJ ramps them up to 128 BPM — a pace that supposedly locks in line with the human circulatory system.
Storywise, the film gradually slows its own BPMs. The annoying partyboy stuff gets moved to the side (profane idiot Mason can’t be ditched fast enough) in favor of a character study with some salient observations about ambition and lost opportunities.
Directing his first feature, Max Joseph (best known for “Catfish: The TV Show”) often structures scenes like the cinematic equivalent of a loud remix played to a Molly-primed rave crowd. Tricky camerawork, hyper-edited montages and flashing text all attempt to amp up the energy. The best finds Cole accidentally dealing with the effects of a PCP-laced joint during an art gallery event. Paintings appear to move, and people colorfully ooze into Ralph Bakshi-esque cartoon figures.
While momentarily diverting, that material never becomes as engaging as the candid interaction among Cole, Sophie and James. They ask themselves a question that turns out to be the hero’s sonic spur: “Are we ever gonna be better than this?”
“We Are Your Friends” will probably date faster than most movies — there can’t possibly be a genre more disposable than electronic dance music. But like Cole, at least the film realizes that merely living in the moment can’t satisfy in the long run.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
‘WE ARE YOUR FRIENDS’
Rated R | Time: 1:36
Maybe Zac Efron will have better luck with the better co-stars in his upcoming movies:
▪ “Dirty Grandpa” (Jan. 22): He’s an uptight guy who must drive his outlandish grandfather (Robert De Niro) to Florida.
▪ “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” (May 20): In this sequel he’s more of the good guy, and Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne find new troubles from sorority president Chloe Grace Moretz.
▪ “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” (July 8): He and Adam DeVine have a crazy night with Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza.
▪ “Baywatch” (no date yet): In a symphony of pecs and abs, Efron and Dwayne Johnson head to the beach.
| Sharon Hoffmann