This might sound like a relatively run-of-the-mill teacher-student drama with overtones of oh, I don't know, Music of the Heart or Dead Poets Society, in which an inspiring teacher is able to change the lives of his or her young students, impacting them forever through access to the arts. Whiplash is emphatically not this. In any way.
Fletcher is a kind of perverse mentor, one who is possibly pushing Andrew to greatness but more probably pushing Andrew toward suicide. But the skill with which Chazelle manages to tell this story is really the best thing about Whiplash. This movie is one of the most intense experiences you can have at the cinema this year. It's absolutely nerve-wracking. The stakes are astounding. And, yes, it's just a kid in music school, but music is this young man's life, and his life always feels at stake throughout Whiplash. Andrew is drumming to become someone, to make something of himself. He, like many young people today, feels as though he is not worth anything, as though he is lost in a sea of success stories; Andrew sees being one of the world's greatest drummers as a way out of that. A way to be a person.
If it seems unlikely that any of us would suffer under the likes of a "mentor" like Fletcher, this seems perfectly logical to Andrew. This is how to become someone, and if one has to endure emotional abuse or even physical torture to achieve that, it is worth the sacrifice to him. Mercifully, Chazelle includes a counterpoint to this version of tutelage in the person of Andrew's father (played by Paul Reiser). Andrew's scenes with his dad are touching and sensitive. His dad doesn't understand Andrew's drive for greatness – like many parents, he sees his son as already a great person – but he loves him all the same and (quite naturally) wants to protect his son from the likes of people like Fletcher.
But Whiplash is not about a debate about which types of mentorship best prepare a young person for success. This is a film about a young man who is navigating a journey to selfhood. A kind of coming-of-age narrative about an undergraduate trying to be the best he can be. And by the end of the film, morality doesn't have anything to do with what we are watching. We watch Andrew carve a niche for himself, make something, in a contest of wills between him and his sadistic instructor.
Critics and awards bodies tend to prefer male performances by older men and female performances by younger women.
(No one is talking about Channing Tatum's genius performance in Foxcatcher, either – more on that another day.)
The other star of the movie is its editor Tom Cross. The film is filled with sequences of drumming, of jazz ensembles playing together, and of Fletcher screaming in people's faces; Cross ratchets up the intensity, editing together an enormous amount of footage. The jazz sequences are stunning – gorgeous shots of horns and winds and bassists, interspersed with Andrew's relentless drumming. It's this that gives the film its high stakes and its desperate tension. This is must-see stuff. One of the best films of the year.