If you haven’t seen it, perhaps you have heard, it’s a bit like getting a 107-minute mild electric shock. This film is an experience.
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle (who is thirty by the way), it challenges—from its very first minutes—notions of abuse being a one-way street. From the very opening scene, I said to my friend “funny how these two people feed each other.”
It starts out with Andrew (Miles Teller), a drummer, and Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), his elite college’s band instructor, in a dark studio. Its opening scene presents a predicament that is so visceral because it's so true for anyone who lives out of their comfort zone: Fletcher repeats and demands so much that we sense the impossible and the tendency toward hopelessness. When really this film seems to be asking us (from the very first scene) what it would take to say “fuck hopeless, I’m here, and I have to move forward.”
And that’s precisely what Andrew does, the entire film—it’s like he’s never entertained the idea of hopeless … OR hope for that matter. He’s operating outside this sentimental loop. He’s kind of mad. And you watch him drive deeper and deeper into this madness—through scenes, like tunnels, that shunt him more sincerely toward his goal.
Like when he has dinner with his extended family and they start picking on what he does, and he starts picking on what they do, and he’s a total elitist about it but you wonder “does it bother me? That he acts like this?”
Or like when he explains to the girl he’s dating, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), how it’s going to go if he gets more serious with her and that it won’t work. And she looks at him and challenges what he says but has no good comeback except to say what the rest of the world does to him: that he’s messed in the head. And we agree with her, for a while, but not forever.
Andrew’s father, Jim (Paul Reiser), is a consistent (except at the family dinner ... hmmm), supportive figure who reflects at once the heart in him and the weakness/failure that he longs to smash and rise above. This is not a foreign dynamic for people—in fact for many of us, it lends handsomely to the emotive run of the plot as a factor that is one of our conscious or subconscious drives in life, a dynamic that is all too real.
This movie continuously challenges your allegiances to its characters’ motivations. We just watch Fletcher—like some kind of predictable force of nature—abuse person after person. His words slice like a surgeon around any sense, whatsoever, of culpability regarding the severe impact he’s having on the mental health and lives of the musicians under his charge.
By nature ultra sensitive folks, musicians at the level portrayed in the film are also in possession of a level of discipline and drive that could so very easily, and often does, set them directly in harm’s way to feed a cycle of abuse. Indeed, Fletcher has a full buffet of feeding options every, single day it seems.
The plot is pretty straightforward but contains an essential twist that is completely obvious, but presents a range of surface and deep protracted consequences in terms of power shifting. When Andrew finds himself out of school yet still interacting with Fletcher, the dynamic shifts, but not right away.
No longer is the institution dictating the nature of this abusive relationship, yet like a cast that’s taken off a limb, the limb is still a bit stiff, and we watch Andrew continue to feed the abuse by sitting down for a drink (willingly!) with Fletcher. Yet we wonder, through excellent writing that built this scene, is it really abuse? Even as we know damn well—it IS!
A few days pass and--at least at an unconscious level--the new dynamic sinks into Andrew. To our delight, it does become conscious. The final scene of the movie is a testament to what happens when a power dynamic falls away while its premise remains. We watch, as we have in other films, the abuser relinquish power to the abused, who takes it back with timing, muscle and cunning. Like a hungry animal with a human mindset. Yet this is not a tired, cliché ending. In fact it's not settling so much as breathtaking.