[Editor’s Note: New theatrical releases for the next couple of weeks look like pretty slim pickings. Fortunately, Phil is currently attending the Toronto International Film Festival to scope out some potentially interesting movies that may (or may not) eventually make their way to your local theater screens sometime in the future. -JZ]
Inspirational teaching dramas are the bane of awards season film releases, which makes Damien Chazelle’s incendiary debut such an incredibly welcome and bitter little surprise. Miles Teller (‘The Spectacular Now’ and the best part of many bad movies) stars as a talented and unhealthily focused young drummer at a prestigious New York music academy who can’t believe his luck when he’s picked to join J.K. Simmons’ school-leading jazz band. What Teller doesn’t anticipate is that Simmons’ teaching style is pitched somewhere between a drill sergeant and a prison heavy. What follows is a wild battle of wits between a talented student and a teacher who believes that he can bring out the best from his pupils through vicious abuse. There’s not a heartwarming inspirational moment to be found, and even when hints of such a revelation emerge, they’re just misdirection to set up a suitably nasty finale.
‘Whiplash’ is essentially a two-hander movie that pits two talented, unpredictable and exciting performers head-to-head and sits back to enjoy the explosive results. Attempts to expand from the central duo into subplots involving Teller’s awkward stab at romance with Melissa Benoist or his relationship with his warmhearted father (Paul Reiser) feel like little more than episodic distractions, almost deliberately so. Chazelle isn’t interested in creating a world of interlocking performances. His goal is to study two men damaged by obsession whose lives are briefly dedicated to a war with each other. That the war is about music is almost incidental (though the music and live performances on screen are quite wonderful). The film also plays as a war between actors that ends in a draw.
Teller is robbed of his wise-cracking crutch and forced to dig deep within his well of talent to portray a young man haunted and hollowed by ambition. Simmons delivers possibly the finest work of a glorious character-acting career as a monster of a man and is downright terrifying without ever losing the damaged soul beneath the snarling façade. Chazelle paces and controls the performances well, while providing a script packed with just enough surprises to avoid predictability. It’s a wonderful little movie that’s already received plenty of deserved attention and is sure to earn even more in the coming months.