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Oscar’s surprising eighth Best Picture nominee, Whiplash, has enough frenetic drumming sequences to provide energy for all eight films. Music student Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) thinks he has lucked out when his school’s top instructor, Terence Fletcher (Academy Award frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor J.K. Simmons), plucks him out of the nobodies to join Studio Band. Andrew soon learns that Fletcher’s mentoring style has more in common with abuse than training. What follows is never quite expected while not entirely surprising. 

Writer-director Damien Chazelle earned his stripes writing horror flicks like The Last Exorcism Part II and Grand Piano, a musical little Hitchcock-ian composition. Those instincts lead him to fill Whiplash with a sense of foreboding. Will Fletcher’s abusive coaching lead Andrew, who might not be the most stable of students, to greatness or to something darker? The joy of Whiplash lies in the not-knowing. Its unpredictability sets it apart from its less-surprising cinematic peers. 

Of course, Simmons’ performance ignites the film with raw, ugly passion. Is he a sadist put in charge of moldable young minds or an exceptional teacher with an unconventional method? No easy answers are provided by Chazelle, and Simmons is as likable as he is hateful. 

Teller has unexpected range. He goes from the charismatic party boy of The Spectacular Now, Footloose and the dreadful That Awkward Moment to this quiet, sad, friendless, bleeding drummer. Whoever Teller is, he is a good young actor. Of that much we can be sure. Whiplash is not tops on my list of Best Picture nominees, but it is certainly the most unanticipated.