I found Whiplash highly entertaining, especially as it ramped up to its conclusion. For a small movie, and it decidedly is as it centers on four characters almost entirely, it touches on significant themes of identity, drive and destiny. It has something to say about mentor/student relationships, about father/son relationships and about self-awareness. Propelled by a remarkable (and soon-to-be Oscar-winning) performance by J. K. Simmons, Whiplash is the kind of independent movie which I am glad there is space for in the crowded marketplace. I cannot say that about all independent movies, to be sure, but the fact that a movie like Whiplash gets to theaters is a very, very good thing, indeed.
Miles Teller stars as Andrew Neimann, a promising drumming student who has been accepted at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, the best music school in the United States. He is determined to be one of the greatest drummers the world has ever known and is willing to push himself to remarkable lengths to achieve his dream. He comes to Shaffer talented and motivated. He also comes as something of a quirky kid, not able – by his own admission – to make and keep friends. We see this played out in various scenarios, though none as compelling and heartbreaking as in his romance with Melissa Benoist’s Nicole (Benoist is very good and is on the rise having just been cast in a Supergirl pilot for CBS next fall), and Andrew struggles with connections throughout the film. Teller is very good in the role, and very believable. I’ve read that 40% of his actual drumming makes it onto the amazing soundtrack for the movie, so he’s not only an actor but a musician. Believable as a kid searching for the path that will define his life, Teller seems a star on the verge of something big – his next role as Reed Richards in this summer’s Fantastic Four is sure to help. Teller is in every single scene in Whiplash. He is the backbone of the film.
Paul Reiser is on hand in a small but critical role as Andrew’s father. I love Paul Reiser (bracketing My Two Dads) and was very happy to see him here. As a counterpoint to Andrew’s life at Shaffer, Reiser is well suited. As a loving father not quite sure what to do with his son’s increasingly slavish and incomprehensible commitment to drumming, he’s perfect. Watch for the shot of him during the movie’s denouement – it’s gold.
Everyone who’s paying attention to movie award season knows, however, that this film really belongs to J.K. Simmons. He is so good as Mr. Fletcher, Andrew’s overbearing, loud and abusive instructor that one wonders if Simmons is simply a a-hole in real life. I don’t believe that he is – no one who is that much of an a-hole could have put together the impressive career Simmons has in a lengthy string of second banana roles. No, Simmons is regarded as a great guy. So where did he find the motivation to play such an unmitigated jerk? Fletcher is everything parents don’t want to see in our children’s teachers. Psychologically damaging and physically abusive, Fletcher should not only be dismissed from his position at Shaffer, he should be thrown in jail. His demands are inhuman. His rants are laced with profanity and ugly. His manner is downright evil. But, in all of that, Simmons makes Fletcher somehow more than a one-note character. He brings depth to his work here and, if the audience is not quite sympathetic to Fletcher, we are, somehow, not simply repulsed by him. This is one of the best performances of the year. I am a little surprised it wasn’t submitted in the Best Actor category, but will be very happy to see Simmons win the award. We deserves it.
The counterpoint between Fletcher, who understands Andrew and his dreams very well, and Andrew’s father, who loves his son but cannot comprehend his dreams at all, makes Whiplash special. Andrew may not understand that he is caught between these two forces, but the movie deftly makes it clear that he is and makes us feel Andrew’s struggle. His choice at the end of the movie, is not at all clear-cut. We cannot anticipate what he’s going to do. This, too, makes Whiplash a cut above other movies.
My only complaint about the movie is a bit unfair. It feels like a textbook back-handed compliment. However, if the first two-thirds of Whiplash were as stunning as its last 20 minutes, I would likely have this on my best of the year list. The conclusion of the movie is so good that I almost want to see Whiplash again just to relive it. Director Damien Chazelle has made a special movie here and it deserves a wider audience. When it hits home video and streaming, see it.
WHIPLASH receives FOUR AND A HALF DRUM STICKS out of a possible FIVE.