Sundance is at its close, and you know what that means: It's time to study up on its big winners so that you can perfectly couple that satisfaction of being in the know with that emptiness that comes with not actually being able to see these movies yourself until the distributive powers that be actually make them available to the general public. Let's hope the former outweighs the latter, and then let's get us started on giving ourselves the tools to best talk about Sundance's Whiplash and why Miles Teller is the next big thing.
Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle and executive produced by Juno and Labor Day director Jason Reitman, follows a young musician (Teller) struggling to make it as a top jazz drummer. The film won Sundance's Grand Jury Prize for drama, as well as the Audience Award, and it's positioning Teller into being a breakout Young-Actor-To-Watch — again.
If you recognize Teller's name or his face, it's likely from a handful of things: 21 & Over and Project X, those boozy bro films, promos for YA franchise adaptation Divergent, or promos for That Awkward Moment, in which he bro-rom-coms it up with Zac Efron and Michael B. Jordan. It's usually those or The Spectacular Now, a star of last year's Sundance, and the film that brought both him and co-star Shailene Woodley Sundance jury prizes for their performances. It's this last one, combined with his work in Whiplash, that recently had Vulture asking themselves "Is it possible for an actor to break through at two consecutive Sundances?"
It seems that, for Teller, the answer is yes.
The screenplay for Whiplash was on the 2012 Black List, that annual list of screenplays studio execs are most looking excited about. Here's the official synopsis, as it appears on the official Sundance website:
Andrew, a promising 19-year-old drummer at a cutthroat Manhattan music conservatory, has little interest in being just a musician. Haunted by his father’s failed writing career and plagued with the fear that mediocrity just might be genetic, Andrew dreams of greatness. Determined not to follow in his father’s footsteps, he practices daily until his hands literally bleed. The pressure of success ratchets into high gear when he is picked to join the school band led by the infamous Terence Fletcher, a brutally savage music instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential. Under Fletcher’s ruthless direction, Andrew begins to pursue perfection at any cost—even his humanity.Sprung from his 2013 Sundance Film Festival award-winning short film, Whiplash is the brilliantly realized feature that writer/director Damien Chazelle always intended to make. Driven by fierce, searing performances from Miles Teller as Andrew and J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher, Whiplash crescendos to a blistering climax that will rattle audiences long after the lights come up.
Teller co-stars with Simmons, the former the student to the latter's tyrannical teacher. Indiewire called the film a "high-energy tale of blood, toil, tears and sweat," noting that "the collective gasps that filled the theater on opening night should stand as a testament to Chazelle's impressive ability to inject the film's musical milieu with thriller-level tension."
As for Teller, The Daily Beast wrote about his performance that "in his previous roles, the 26-year-old actor was like Vince Vaughn-lite—a charismatic, eminently likeable motor mouth. As the tortured Andrew, he delivers a far more nuanced, subdued performance, brimming with animus." And Simmons? Practically every review notes that this likely marks the most intense performance of his career, banishing all thoughts of Juno's loving midwestern dad from view.
The whole film, it seems, rides on the performances of Teller and Simmons, and according to popular opinion they pull it off with a level of vehemence that will also likely drive all logline associations with Drumline out of the way.