We all know how inspirational teacher stories are supposed to go — those movies like Stand and Deliver, Dead Poets Society, and The Miracle Worker, in which determined instructors wrangle difficult, indifferent, ill-treated, or seemingly unreachable students, coaxing and prodding them toward success, seeing potential in them that no one else has. There are ups and downs, but by the time we reach the ending, everyone's better for the struggle. Right?
Whiplash, which is screening at the New York Film Festival before opening in theaters Oct. 10, takes this formula and tilts it on its axis, so that it's always wobbling between harsh guidance and outright abuse. It's thrilling and sickening to watch, pushing you away with scenes of inventive cruelty, then reeling you back in by demanding that you consider if you're seeing someone run the kind of gauntlet necessary to create true greatness.
Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a 19-year-old jazz drummer enrolled at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, a Juilliard-esque fictional institution in Manhattan. He's the child of an absent mother and an affectionate failed writer of a father, and he's the only musician in the family. At a Thanksgiving dinner, or on a date with the girl who works the concession stand at his local movie theater, he gets nothing but blank incomprehension when he talks about ambitions.
But within Shaffer's intensely competitive walls and the equally closed-in world of orchestral jazz, Andrew knows exactly where he stands and where he wants to go, and he and the other students wait to catch the eye of Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) like restless debutants at a ball, longing to be asked to dance. Terence is the conductor for the conservatory's high-profile studio band, which participates in competitions and could serve as a stepping stone to Lincoln Center. He's also an epic asshole.
Whiplash, which is written and directed with jolting vitality by 29-year-old Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), is a nervy pas de deux between Teller and Simmons. There are other people in its world, but they're window dressing — the fellow musicians who avert their eyes when Terence brings his wrath down on someone, Andrew's loving but ineffectual father (Paul Reiser), who doesn't even have a name, and Nicole (Melissa Benoist), the girl Andrew briefly dates, an indecisive Fordham undergrad whose uncertainties about her life pale, in Andrew's eyes, in comparison to his own drive. Terence is the only one who counts in Andrew's increasingly narrow life, though his attention, which Andrew eventually earns, is a questionable blessing.
Simmons has played all sorts of gruff but twinkly paternal figures in his career, from Spider-Man to Juno to Growing Up Fisher. Terence isn't one of them. He'll offer up moments of softness and warmth, but they're more often than not deceptive, an attempt to lure someone into defensiveness before ruthlessly breaking them down. Whiplash is a film about a certain type of jazz, but Terence could just as easily be a hardass football coach or a steely drill sergeant, so mercilessly does he treat the band. On Andrew's first day with them, he gives him a pep talk in the hallway about having fun, then, in a magnificent sequence of building dread, makes him play the same measure again, and again, and again in front of the other musicians, insisting it's "not my tempo" until Andrew's humiliated and in tears.
Whiplash is about a bully, but it's not a cruel film — Andrew's hardiness, and his own myopic dedication to greatness at the expense of his personal life, save it from that. Teller, who's rapidly transitioning from the standout star of indies like The Spectacular Now to a future superhero movie lead, is once again strong here, playing Andrew as sullen, scowling, able to light up and look vulnerable in small moments but otherwise ready to accept Terence's treatment as the forge in which he'll be remade. He squares his shoulders and charges into Terence's worst attacks. He practices until he's drenched in sweat, face contorting with effort, blood on his drum kit from torn fingers (an image of which the movie's a little too fond), then sinks his fists into ice water like a boxer.
If Terence's standards are impossible to meet, Andrew is willing to try anyway, ready to die in the process. And what makes Whiplash so dynamic and unnervingly unpredictable is that it never lets you decide if their dysfunctional relationship is destructive or perfect, if they're two people chasing each other to a terrible end or to excellence. When Terence slaps Andrew across the face in front of the band, the answer seems easy — but when he bemoans a generation that's grown up fragile from being congratulated on every tiny accomplishment, it's hard not to at least understand his side. Terence may be a tyrant, slippery and untrustworthy (and we only ever see him from Andrew's eyes), but he gets results.
And Whiplash makes jazz, even in this buttoned-down form, sparkle, the camera whipping around the stage, closing in on tangible details — the rhythmic plonk of instrument cases being set down on chairs and opened, the draining of a spit valve, the flurry of fingers on a trumpet, the quiver of sweat on a cymbal. When the band plays together, when they're really cooking, it's as if they transform from disparate individuals into some magical whole. It's a visceral depiction of music, and even if in real life jazz might strike you as a distinct or inaccessible thing, on screen here it's as vivid as a sports tournament, and just as shiveringly intense. You might not understand it, but you know why Andrew and Terence both love it, and why they're willing to smash each other to bits to find a moment of magic on stage.