Damien Chazelle's second film, Whiplash, builds somewhat on his debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, with the themes of sacrificing love and a personal life in order to pursue one's talents. In his finely tuned, often unexpectedly suspenseful sophomore effort, we find ourselves in the jazz musicians' world (just as we did in Guy and Madeline), amid a Julliard-esque music school called the Shaffer Conservatory, where the mildly talented are quickly separated from the extremely gifted.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) falls perhaps somewhere in between the two categories, wanting desperately to join the ranks of drummer legends like Buddy Rich. Eyeing the coveted jazz band class taught by famed conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Neiman is both nervous and excited when Fletcher walks in on him practicing alone--only to become immediately disheartened when Fletcher leaves the room seemingly unimpressed.
Neiman gets his second chance when Fletcher comes in to his class to hear him and his fellow classmates play, unexpectedly (though not that unexpectedly) choosing Neiman to join his own band as the alternate drummer. At first, Fletcher appears perfectly approachable to Neiman, who clearly looks to him as the source of inspiration missing from his personal life. Though telltale signs like Fletcher telling him to show up for practice at 6 a.m. when it actually begins at 9 a.m. lead him to wonder at the nature of his beloved instructor. And, of course, the second Neiman reveals information about his life--that his mother left him and his father (played by Paul Reiser) when he was young and that his father is a high school English teacher--Fletcher uses it to throw back in his face, making him feel like the worthless descendant of a mediocre family.
And this all adheres to Fletcher's larger philosophy, which is, "The two most harmful words in the English language are 'good job.'" Pushing Neiman to the physical and emotional brink (bloody hands and tears are frequently involved), Fletcher shows no regard for anything but the musical excellence of his band. Just when you're convinced he's a total automaton, the news of a former student's death (supposedly by car accident) drives Fletcher to actually cry in front of his class, lamenting the demise of a great musician.
What makes Whiplash so engaging is its complex exploration of character: Fletcher, who you feel like you should hate, but can't help respecting for his commitment to superior music, and Neiman, who possesses such an earnestness and desire to be great, that you feel each of his failures as intensely as he does. Not only that, but it is a film that addresses a question Americans have long sought to avoid: Is being "good" what's made this country so artistically mediocre in the past decade?