Jazz drumming may not seem like an obvious subject for gripping cinema. But judging by its reception at Sundance (where it won the Grand Jury prize and Audience award) and Cannes (where it was selected for the Director’s Fortnight), writer-director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash squeezes quite the compelling drama out of shuffles, drags, and fills.
Miles Teller plays Andrew, a teenaged drumming aficionado with his eyes set on greatness. He enrolls at a prestigious New York City conservatory where his teacher, Mr. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), believes his students can only achieve greatness if he pushes them “beyond what’s expected of them.” “Beyond,” in this case, means calling Andrew “a worthless pansy-ass,” throwing things at him, and even slapping him across the face. Fletcher’s approach to motivation verges on abuse, but Andrew seems more than willing to take what his teacher dishes out if it means mastering his art.
Impressively, Teller—who since his star turn in The Spectacular Now has been lauded as “the best young male actor in America”—does all the drumming himself. And Simmons, so often cast in supporting, fatherly roles, gets a chance to show some serious dramatic chops. Whiplash continues its festival run in Toronto in September and hits theaters on Oct. 10.