SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2014
By Don Simpson | January 19, 2014
Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Jayson Blair, Kavita Patil
Inexplicably abandoned at an early age by his mother and raised by a father (Paul Reiser) who never achieved success as a writer, Andrew (Miles Teller) is riddled with an unquenchable drive to become famous. Though Whiplash does not make much of Andrew’s backstory, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) — the tyrannical band conductor at his elite music conservatory — makes good use of that information to emotionally destroy him.
Whiplash examines how Fletcher preys upon the emotional insecurities of a friendless first year college student who regularly goes to the local movie theater with his father. Fletcher plays with Andrew’s sense of self-worth by boosting him up only to knock him right back down again. Andrew is constantly unsure of his standing with Fletcher, leaving him in a constant state of fear. Knowing that Fletcher could be his ticket to success, Andrew is willing to do anything to impress — or even appease — Fletcher, who takes full advantage of Andrew’s naive desperation.
During one of Andrew’s high points, he musters up enough courage to finally ask out the girl (Melissa Benoist) who works at the movie theater concession stand. Though this fleeting relationship serves mostly as a distraction from the primary narrative, it does highlight Andrew’s somewhat futile attempts at controlling a less confident person. Their relationship also serves as an example of just how willing Andrew is to throw anything away in order to achieve his goals.
The story of Whiplash seems vaguely familiar, as if a similar narrative arc has been used to tell a story about a boxer with an emotionally abusive trainer. It seems as though elite music schools are successful because they have faculty like Fletcher who will relentlessly push the students beyond their natural abilities to see if they can reach a higher level of greatness. On Twitter, critics are jumping on the similarities between Whiplash and Full Metal Jacket, which is not all that far-fetched. Fletcher looks and screams like a drill sergeant, ruling his students with extreme levels of fear. One could argue that Fletcher’s motivations are more sincere, as Whiplash strives to form the conductor into a well-rounded individual, showing the extremes of his personality and allowing him to explain his actions.
Whiplash explores the pros and cons of Fletcher’s behavior, existing in a moral grayness that opts to not really take sides. A teacher saying that someone does a “good job” might turn out to be a curse, but where does one draw the line between motivation and psychological torture?