Our Brand Could Be Your Crisis

We Are Your Friends is not our youth, but it might as well be

IT’S apt that the title of We Are Your Friends is 50 percent pronouns. Who those pronouns address is the key to why it’s so special, and why it may have bypassed the audience it should have reached. In just a few years, millennial will no longer be synonymous with twenty-something. The widely reviled 2015 movie about an EDM DJ and his friends anticipates their nostalgia.

The film attempts to reconcile the second wave of millennials—those who were still in school during the 2008 recession and who hadn’t yet entered the job market—to those just barely their senior. These first-wave millennials are largely skeptical of their generational younger siblings, for whom the tools and spaces of work, leisure, and identity formation have become in many cases become identical. Millennials may be a blip in human history, but we’re distinguished by becoming adults in a world dramatically different than the ones we were children in with more new normals than our parents or kids born in the aughts experienced in their formative years.

The trailer for We Are Your Friends is cut like a Time article trying to explain “kids these days”: “Study halls, SATs, liberal arts, student loans, layoffs, bailouts, broken dreams. This is not our future. Things are different for us.” The first half of that claim is a list of what we all once had in common; what is “different for us” is the reality the film so effectively romanticizes while completely misapprehending.

Both the trailer and the film’s expository voice-over gesture at a future that school and white-collar aspiration were always meant to funnel us into, but those institutions have been crumbling for well over a decade, and the characters repeatedly distance themselves from whatever they once promised. Efron’s character, Cole, declares, “We can invent an app, start a blog, sell things online”—words repeated so often they might as well be a prayer: Give-us-this-day-our-daily-bread-for-we-can-invent-an-app-start-a-blog-sell-things-online. These possibilities are why Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers so often look at millennials with both contempt and barely concealed envy for a skill set with dubious offline value.

Watching the film, I was struck by it as a vision of someone who witnessed my youth, even if they didn’t exactly share it. Screenwriters Max Joseph (who also directed the film) and Megan Oppenheimer are in their early thirties, just old enough to look on at millennials’ present fate with some shared signifiers but a wholly different frame of reference. Their generational proximity allows them to be more sympathetic than baby boomers to today’s twenty-somethings but still judgmental. What we came of age with, they witnessed as adults through the tint of yesteryear’s reissued Ray-Bans. We’ve reached the end of our anxious retread of the past that gave us white guys with handlebar mustaches, the 90s aren’t “back,” they’re being appropriated anew, and we’ve lost the sense of anticipation and speculation that fueled all our current bubbles. Now we only await collapse. Which is why the sincere romanticism of We Are Your Friends felt like the purest signifier of our current time. The attitude informing the film isn’t contempt, it’s an almost impressed awe and good faith that make the anachronistic parable the film offers an easily ignored side effect. That’s the magic that saves it from being just a misconceived lecture: It’s an utterly Romantic ode.

We Are Your Friends features wide, sweeping shots of California landscape, from aerial views of the Hollywood Hills to graphics explaining the San Fernando Valley. Most of the film’s most sentimental conversations take place outside: by pools, at a music festival, at a beach. Even when he isn’t running or shown in the shower, water and sweat bead on Efron’s neck and shoulders. The colors throughout are rich and warm, perpetually sunlit — drained only in a scene when some Stanford grads gather to discuss their white-collar lives as lawyers or executives. In We Are Your Friends even the strip club, hiply playing Makonnen, isn’t grimy.

And like the Romantic odes of the nineteenth century, this one too unironically champions nature, not the city; the organic, not the manufactured; gut feeling, not cues from elders. Although here the distinctions are less stark. The alternative to the pretensions of L.A. is the San Fernando Valley. The difference between the organic and the manufactured comes down to whether an electronic track features recorded sounds or relies on a drum machine, and the elder whose mistakes we’re discouraged from making is only a few years older.

James Reed, the world famous DJ looked up to by Zac Efron’s character and played by Wes Bentley, is a Byronic antihero recognizable in all his isolating addictions and self-loathing, recast with a shawl-collar hangover cardigan: “Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt / From all affection and from all contempt.” His character speaks the lesson the film pushes to all the Coles watching: that millennials’ problems are rooted in our new habits, not economic shifts, and that salvation lies in a return to something more analog and thus genuine.

The plot turns on Cole’s iPod dying during one of his frequent runs, which forces him to hear instead the sounds of wind chimes and machinery. This is not quite as natural as the chirping woodland one imagines a boomer would endorse, but it is presumably more natural than whatever must have been streaming into Cole’s headphones. Reed clearly thinks so. His impression of Cole’s music at the beginning of the film is “all that was missing was a hashtag.” He pushes Cole to “build from scratch” because “sound is organic.” In a stunning feat of earnestness, We Are Your Friends shows us one electronic musician telling another to “Get your head out of that laptop and start listening to what the real world is trying to tell you.”

When the four-guy gang at the heart of the film looks on from a sun-dappled bluff at the view of Los Angeles below them, Ollie, the seemingly oldest of the crew, insists again upon the possibility of building an app, or landing an acting job, or getting a headlining DJ gig—just one break that could allow them to partake in the mirage of success that we’re constantly reminded of. They commiserate about the inventor of Instagram, who sold it for millions. These golden possibilities are supposed to be why millennials have it so good, why older generations are in awe over us—needy when they can’t navigate an iPad and dismissive when we can’t find a job in the economy they destroyed.

The language of the gig economy that millennial precarity has borne saturates the film. “I’ll hook you up.” “We’ll take care of you.” In exchange for bottle service, Vine star King Bach (playing himself) offers, “I’ll throw you in a vine and make you famous and shit.” This, and other exchanges about favor-based social economies, exemplify how much social capital has replaced liquid assets for millennials. There isn’t much cash between us, but maybe we’ll get friendly with the right celebrity online who’ll “throw us in a vine” and then another brand might pay us for their next one. The lead characters share a home (a parent’s) and a car (another parent’s). At ages when their parents probably already had a spouse and a mortgage, their friendship revolves around their status as roommates for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile their sole alternative to waiting around for a big break is employment in the office of a debt negotiator who’s revealed to be a foreclosure profiteer, buying homes out from under those buried by subprime mortgages and re-selling them for far more. Of the people he’s conning he says, “When you call these people, you’re calling as their friend.” He’s a character that feels oddly transposed into the film from a noir, with a thick New York accent and an affinity for carrying a baseball bat in the office. He doesn’t believe in “La la digital bullshit.”

That digital bullshit is the dissolution of the work-life balance—less a dissolve than a co-option of leisure into work, producing a market of overtaxed independent contractors and freelancers. It’s social media apps and the content we pour into them for metrics that hint at money or influence in return. If meaningful work is now extracting the market value of your lifestyle brand, then life itself is ceaseless labor. Ads that advertise your own work to you offer the neoliberal fantasy of being your own boss, “hustle” as in-sourcing your exploitation to yourself, the social capital of working in “creative” fields supposedly making up for the lack of actual capital.

Older filmmakers might have missed the nature of this struggle and presented it with irony. And a millennial filmmaker staring into this abyss—in which the achievements of our predecessors in a less digital world seem to dwarf not just our meager salaries but our self-esteem about how we attain them—might not have produced anything this charming. The thirty-somethings behind We Are Your Friends imbue millennials’ fates with a nostalgic romanticism that makes a perfectly wonderful ninety-minute break from that aforementioned fate, even if they mistakenly diagnose the millennial condition as a simple failure to “be real.”

It makes sense that the filmmakers’ generation, first-wave millennials, fixate on authenticity as a value. This was the wave of millennials that took their angst at the strange new world and channeled it toward artisanal goods and an aggressive return to American craftsmanship. They outgrew their devotion to vintage and irony but bought wholly into selling “realness.” They opened Brooklyn farm-to-table restaurants and Portland pour-over coffee shops. No wonder they look at freelance hours and the branded-content generation with skepticism, even as they ape colonial ancestors with their beards, suspenders, and predilection for displacing communities of color and pretending they discovered bean-to-bar chocolatiering. In an interview with Time, director Max Joseph uses the word authentic five times.

By the end of the movie, Cole shares the learned lesson that a dream that’s “real enough and honest enough” is “your ticket.” His love interest Sophie quits her life as Reed’s assistant and begins work at a coffee shop where “the tips are shitty and the manager is always hitting on me.” She’s seen returning to school, likely accruing more debt doing so. (It is hinted that she became an alcoholic during her first attempt and couldn’t afford to return.) Ollie returns to auditions and, in one of the many visual throwbacks to Entourage, is shown in a room full of guys that look like him. Mason continues to promote parties the way they all did, only now he’s on his own. One of the women scammed out of her home by the real estate mogul receives a shoebox full of cash, which can’t possibly be enough for her troubles. These revelations are soundtracked by the optimistic crescendo of “I Can Be Somebody,” by Erin McCarley and Deorror. The confidence the film ends on becomes an even darker irony when a closing quote of triumph is offered by a dead character.
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MY reaction to first-wave millennials is mostly, thanks for all the hand-lettered typeface, but you can’t save us. Still, I loved this movie, because it’s a retrospective on indieness for the millennials just preparing to be nostalgic for their own indie days.

Beyond a Byronic ode, beyond a document of millennial precarity, beyond even a parable that verges on camp, We Are Your Friends is most enjoyable as a fan letter to bloghouse. In that halcyon era from 2007 to 2010, this particular category of consumers may have listened to The Strokes and Bon Iver during the day, but their nights were soundtracked by bloghouse, mostly notably from French label Ed Banger Records.

The choice of title itself shocked me to We Are Your Friends’s time-capsule charm. We Are Your Friends is named not after the Simian album but the single — a remix of Simian’s “Never Be Alone” by French electro duo Justice, a bloghouse classic that went on to win best video at the 2006 MTV Europe music awards, the same year Zac Efron debuted in High School Musical. Having this song, a staple of some of my favorite parties as a teen—parties fueled exclusively by the attendants’ faith in their distinction from the mnstrm jock Troy Boltons of the world—score a film where Efron emerges with the clean fade that even white men now wear, headphones hooked around his neck, nothing but a tank top, a side-room DJ gig, and a dream, held my attention even as the trailer presented students bubbling in answer sheets, and Occupy Wall Street cops in full riot gear (a montage as cringe inducing as hearing the word hipster after 2011). When a drug-induced hallucination in the film cited the rotoscopy of the 2007 fan video for Girl Talk’s “Bounce That,” my investment was complete.

Whether they’re rolling off molly at a music festival or gripping red cups in their backyard, the party scenes were the most effective in the film. Life under contemporary capitalism demands an aggressive alienation from each other and our bodies. Most of western culture is dedicated to recouping sensation amid that strain. When your life doesn’t seem to have much meaning, wringing the most out of moments of pleasure and friendship take on a near canonical duty. That’s why shows like Skins that specialize in dramatizing teen debauchery are soaked in so much nostalgia even as they first air. We need their parties to be meaningful because that means maybe ours are too. The main characters’ physical ease around each other is just part of what makes their friendship so believable. When they pregame together before a night out it’s the gender flipped Axe-body-spray-fueled version of the getting ready together montages of 90s chick flicks.

For a movie filled with Herschel backpacks, Vine celebrities, and cameos by the hosts of a television program whose premise didn’t even have a name until the 2010 film Catfish—for a film attempting to explain life in 2016—We Are Your Friends is the story of the songs and sensibility of the decade just preceding it.

This film recasts the scare-quotes generation, the generation that uses relatable memes to admit being bedridden by depression and monetizes that sensibility because what else do you do with a whole lot of student debt and a data plan? Rather than present a bleak drama or the sexy violence of Spring Breakers, it gives us a different kind of post-Disney star, one who unbelievably insists on love, friendship, and dedication to craft. Forget the box-office numbers—this never could have never been a blockbuster. The whole point was it’s not an indie. And it deserves to be a cult classic for anyone who has ever thought about the word indie for more than three minutes.

We Are Your Friends is like when Solange covered Dirty Projectors, an implosion of people’s biases about who was on the inside of indie, and what indie was outside of. Indie was never a bubble, it was the edge of a wave visible for a short time as a much smaller part of the culture than it became. We live in an era when the least remarkable feature of a Beyoncé album is that it samples Animal Collective and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Thank god we can admit the assumed barriers between those artists’ audiences were just foolish projections of mostly white rockists who had no legacy beyond overwhelming urge to feel special, to overrate their personal blips in history.

Most of us have grown out of that sense of alterity and into a market obsessed with us. We Are Your Friends situates us as nostalgics for that time. As more of what we lived through is mined for an aesthetic retrospective of our pasts, more of it will be rewritten. Zac Efron once played the captain of the basketball team who struggled to admit he enjoyed singing. The modern bro has no such qualms. There’s no alternative to be bullied for, just an endlessly unfolding array of genres to skim from. No “alternative” to be bullied for of course, other than all the structural vulnerabilities of embodied difference—race, gender, sexuality, and class. The cultural class formerly known as hipsters now exercises a full monopoly on the meaning of “millennial,” often erasing those differences.

The film’s Romantic sensibility may be rooted in a false reading of our generational angst, but it makes for a good-looking film. We don’t have to sit through the ironic T-shirts or neon accessories of bloghouse; instead we can pretend it never really ended, was always just EDM, and things will work out fine for anyone beautiful and earnest.

We Are Your Friends combines a critique that demands we look backward to “nature,” with an idealized image of us as beautiful and nobly striving. Its shared references and soundtracks and house-party aesthetics pitch us a view of our own youth. This is a movie that conflates two distinct segments, in it, second-wave millennials live in a world imagined by the first wave. The conflation of these groups is the real inheritance of the last ten years.

For all the spaghetti straps, studded belts, frosted lips, and chunky highlights, the cluelessly confident bad style we’re only just beginning to reminisce over with flatforms and fluorescence, the early aughts might as well have been the 1990s. It wasn’t until 2005 that we found our footing again as a culture—a culture perhaps destabilized just as much by the clean restart of two-thousand-and as by 9/11. Before we could move through the highlight reel of all that had come before, the working-class Americana, and the best of the prep and the punk to arrive at our present minimalist and monochromatic stylishness, there was a critical period of soul searching by all for whom questions of authenticity felt significant.

We Are Your Friends is a warm bath for anyone who remembers when the last spasm of countercultures (be they hip-hop or punk rock, literature or early internet utopias) were transformed from subcultures into aesthetic submarkets too glutted with angst over sincerity and irony to ever be spaces of genuine opposition. Online microgenres quickly replaced those authenticity-trolling subcultures because they didn’t have to be physically substantiated the same way, and anyone with an online presence was entitled to them. At a time when we have less money to spend on our aesthetic, we need less money to have one. (You don’t need a closet full of Rick Owens, just a Tumblr account with pictures of it.)

There was no better response to the growing pains of the last decade than suffusing it all with pretty pictures and dance music. Second- and third-wave millennials who grew up on tumblr and vine get that. And a film that makes undeniable how irrelevant the self-seriousness of first wavers is, even as it recommends it, inadvertently gets us. We Are Your Friends offers us something to simply consume and enjoy; none of the debate over sincerity and all the corporate gloss that doesn’t try to hide itself in amateur art direction, unknown actors, and an acoustic soundtrack. Not all its flaws are endearing, a homophobic punchline and voicemail that would have been more believable as a text are as conspicuous as the expensive clothing of its cast. But a major-studio movie with model-pretty actors that has zero cachet when name-dropped in conversation is the perfect conclusion to anachronistic first-wave millennial angst and pre Condé Nast Pitchfork-era debates. Maybe that’s why it inspired so much knee-jerk dismissal, reigniting the old impulse to make fun of the Troy Boltons of the world and their lack of cool irony.

If you want to predict the future, see what is being mined from the past. More than a revisionist time capsule, this film is the point at which aughts culture enters the 20Teens. A few days ago Instagram updated its icon from a retro image of an instant camera to a rainbow gradient that deemphasizes the old-timey device. Urban Outfitters and American Apparel are both on track for bankruptcy, and marketers are beginning to rethink throwing money at young “influencers” with big social media followings. In this universe your average EDM DJ living in a parents’ house and tweeting his soundcloud link isn’t compelling, but a movie where he’s the hero is everything.