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Another award season is in full swing, with all of the major studios throwing their hats (and their best Oscar bait) into the ring. But some of this year’s most noteworthy releases aren’t the big-budget films from well-known directors; they’re the low-budget indies—like director Damien Chazelle’s musical drama Whiplash.

Whiplash stars Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman, a talented young jazz drummer who dreams of becoming one of the greats. While attending one of the best music conservatories in the country, he finds himself under the direction of Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), an infamous instructor who sees Andrew’s potential and invites him to join the school’s most prestigious jazz orchestra.

Andrew is thrilled to be accepted into such an elite group, but he soon discovers that Fletcher expects nothing less than absolute (and sometimes irrational) perfection from his students. And the instructor’s relentless abuse soon pushes the determined young musician beyond the limits of what he can endure.

It may have been filmed on a tight budget in just 19 days, but Whiplash isn’t missing a thing. In fact, the gritty simplicity only adds to the intensity of this study in determination, drive, and the quest for musical greatness. And somewhere in this uncompromising atmosphere of affront and abuse, there’s a riveting story to be told.

Teller does an excellent job in such a physically and emotionally challenging role. He holds absolutely nothing back—and, in the process, he makes Andrew a confounding yet convincing character. You’ll often question his choices—but, in a way, you’ll understand them, too. And as he continues to fight for acceptance and recognition—for just one more nod of approval from his instructor—you’ll want to jump out of your seat and cheer him on.

It’s Simmons, however, who truly stands out as the merciless conductor. His is the kind of performance that makes you want to look away—to save yourself from the brutality of his character’s behavior. But he taunts audiences with occasional glimpses of humanity—the same glimpses that keep Fletcher’s long-suffering students coming back for more. And he’s just so good at being so very horrible that he’s also undeniably entertaining.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the characters are fascinating, with Andrew’s unwavering determination and Fletcher’s unconventional methods combining with explosive results. Andrew is a talented musician who won’t let anyone—not a girlfriend, not his family, not a tough instructor—get in the way of his dreams. Fletcher is the kind of conductor whose attention can be both a career-making blessing and a back-breaking curse. And the growing tension between these two strong-minded musicians makes for the kind of suspense that’s sure to take your breath away.

Dark and edgy and wonderfully rhythmic, Whiplash isn’t a fun, feel-good movie. Yet its intriguing characters, its bold performances, and its infectious beats make it an intense must-see drama.

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