WHIPLASH IS INTENSE. Way more intense than one would expect, given that it's about a kid learning how to play the drums. That kid is Andrew (Miles Teller), and he's studying at a New York music conservatory that Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) rules like a glowering god. To learn from Fletcher is to learn from the best, and when Andrew is selected for the honor, we see his dream—to become "one of the greats"—become obtainable. But Fletcher, furious and iron-willed, tolerates nothing but perfection, and his methods veer into verbal and physical abuse. Fletcher will destroy Andrew if he thinks there's a chance Andrew might survive; Andrew, jaw clenched and hands bleeding, thinks he can survive. Throw some drums behind R. Lee Ermey's Full Metal Jacket monologue and you get the general idea.

Whiplash's single-minded focus is its most engaging feature (this movie somehow makes learning to play the drums feel like a matter of life and death) and also its Achilles' heel (the entire arc of the film's only female character, gamely played by Melissa Benoist, consists of getting asked out by Andrew, going on a date with Andrew, and getting dumped by Andrew). But given its goals—and with strong turns from Teller and Simmons—Whiplash isn't that different from Fletcher's brutal teaching style: When the results are this good, it's hard to argue with the method.