I admit I'm a little late to the party on this film. Whiplash was released in theaters way back in January and has since collected three Oscars, but it can still be seen in select theaters and is now available on video, so I highly recommend checking it out if you have not already.
Whiplash, by all traditional measurements was a sleeper hit. A small-budget independent film, no A-list actors in the cast, and a premise which does anything but scream high-concept. Though a lot of credit it owed to its great performances and the amazing on-screen musical skill of its star Miles Teller, the secret to the film's success as a work of storytelling originates from the fact that it takes a tried-and-true (and due to its constant overuse in Hollywood, all-too-familiar) narrative Plot Pattern and renders it almost unrecognizable to the viewer into something which seems altogether fresh and new. Whiplash manages to nail what often seems to be a contradictory demand made of writers and filmmakers, to “give something new, yet familiar.” Though the film's surface content may seem to be material which seems rarely if ever explored in a major feature film, under that surface Whiplash follows a specific and distinctive Plot Pattern (also known on this blog as a “Story Type”) which we have all seen and enjoyed many times before.
I am referring specifically to the “Small Man (or Woman) Rises” story type, the second of my 20 Common Plot Patterns as found in Hollywood and American Independent feature films. This pattern is defined as such:
A more or less unremarkable protagonist is selected by an outside power to fulfill a role through which he or she is expected to achieve greatness. Unprepared and often unwilling to fill this role, the protagonist first requires the guidance and nurturance of supporting characters to expose and eliminate the flawed attitudes or behaviors that block the hero's path to greatness. Later developments present a series of tests which force the hero to recognize and then prove his or her great potential value, usually failing before finding success.
The key defining traits of this plot pattern are first that the hero is chosen by an outside power to participate in the story's quest. Second, the hero's strongest obstacle is not physical, but internal; usually a flaw in the hero's sense of self-worth, value to the world, or personal identity.
This plot pattern can be further broken down into two subtypes:
The Summoned Hero
An inexperienced hero is plucked from obscurity by a higher power to fill a role of great importance. Mentors and other supporting characters nurture the hero in preparation for a final confrontation with a force of antagonism in which the hero must finally prove his or her worth. (Examples: The Matrix, Men in Black, Silence of the Lambs, Kung-Fu Panda)
The Breakaway Hero
A hero is ushered into a system or given an opportunity through which he or she is promised fame, glory, or great personal achievement. However, the protagonist comes to realizes this system is not acting in his or her best interests, often using him or her for their own questionable purposes. The hero then breaks away from that system (often inciting open conflict between the two) whereafter he or she transforms into an independent hero fighting for his or her own personal cause. (Examples: Batman Begins, Rocky, 12 Monkeys)
The most obvious difference between these two subtypes is that is in the Summoned Hero, the protagonist has a positive relationship with those who have chosen him or her for the role, while in the Breakaway Hero, the protagonist develops an antagonistic relationship, ultimately standing against it in direct conflict.
Plotwise, Whiplash belongs to the second subtype. Its protagonist Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), an ambitious young drummer at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music is plucked from obscurity by revered instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) to join the Studio Band, Shaffer's elite group of musicians. However, Andrew soon realizes that Fletcher is not a benevolent, nurturing mentor, but an ogre and a tyrant who, (much like Ra's Al Ghul in Batman Begins) uses harsh methods to mold and warp Andrew into the type of person Andrew did not formerly wish to become. (See this previous article for more information on mentor-antagonist relationships.) Due to the love-hate relationship found between protagonists and such mentor-antagonists, Andrew tries to meet all of Fletcher's unreasonable expectations, but eventually rebels against this treatment, turning into Fletcher's enemy, ultimately defeating Fletcher to become an independent hero living on his own terms based on his own personal standards of greatness.
As seen in the other examples of Small Man/Woman Rises narratives listed above, this plot pattern usually lends itself to stories with fantastic premises or those with protagonists put into extraordinary situations. Whiplash however is noteworthy for adapting this form to a premise which is much smaller and more personal, one which the audience can better relate to and identify with their own struggles for worth and accomplishment. Whiplash gains its dramatic impact by taking a superhero-type narrative and placing it into the far more accessible context of the everyday, into a coming-of-age tale of growth and maturity with which the audience can directly identify.
Essential to the Small Man/Woman Rises is how the greatest obstacle standing in the protagonist's path to victory comes not so much the force of antagonism, but the protagonist's own Fatal Flaw. The “Fatal Flaw” is a concept often misunderstood amongst developing storytellers due to the fact that it is often address with much vaguery. The Fatal Flaw is always psychological. All of the protagonist's negative or self-defeating traits arise from a warped or incorrect paradigm – that is, a system of beliefs the protagonist has developed which negatively influence how the character sees him or herself, others, or the world in general. Andrew's Fatal Flaw is that he suffers from what psychologists refer to as an “external locus of self-worth.” This means Andrew views his personal value not on his own terms, but based on approval received from someone or something outside of him over which he has no control. Namely, Andrew judges his value insofar as he can receive Fletcher's approval. Because of this, Andrew willingly puts up with all of Fletcher's abuse because it is only by gaining Fletcher's approval that Andrew senses any personal value. This however proves to be an absurd quest as Fletcher will never, ever give Andrew praise no matter how hard he works or how much he is willing to give. But Andrew does not realize this, and like a hamster on wheel keeps charging harder and harder after what he cannot receive, becoming miserable and destroying himself in the process. If Andrew is ever to find any success or happiness, he must abandon this flawed paradigm in favor of one which is healthier, more productive and more accurately reflects the truth of the world in which he lives (a process known in screencraft as conversion or value realignment). Andrew must shift away from an external locus of self-worth to an internal one, one where his sense of personal value is based on his own standards rather than any imposed from outside.
Conflict is always the key to character change. Conversely, character change is always the key to overcoming that conflict. They are two problems which solve each other. Andrew's external locus of self-worth drives him in reckless and obsessive pursuit of Fletcher's impossible standards. But by following his flaw, Andrew is pursuing his goals the wrong way. His actions do nothing to solve the conflict, rather they only make it worse. Continually denied what he desires, Andrew eventually snaps, attacks his mentor and in the process loses everything he has so far struggled to achieve. Fortunately, these mounting failures provide Andrew with a mountain of evidence that once reflected upon lead Andrew to a moment of self-revelation. He comes to realize that it is foolish and self-defeating to bank his sense of personal worth on the approval of someone who is too cruel and indifferent to give it. True self-worth can only come from oneself. To be at peace with one's own value, one must set their own standards of accomplishment and then pursue those standards for no one's approval but one's own. So, like the title character of Rocky, another Breakaway Hero narrative, Andrew reevaluates his goals and sets new objectives by which he can achieve a sense of worth on his own terms. By shifting from an external locus of worth to an internal one, Andrew finds the strength of will to finally stand up to and ultimately defeat his oppressor, by no longer playing by Fletcher's rules, but by his own. In the end, like in other Breakaway Hero narratives, Andrew stands on his own two feet as an independent hero who find greatness by acting according to his own personal values and beliefs.
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'.” This is the philosophy that Fletcher lives by. Though this may sound cruel, Fletcher does make a good point. By withholding praise, Fletcher tries to push Andrew to become the best he can possibly be. But as the narrative plainly shows, this has both a positive and negative impact upon Andrew's struggle for accomplishment. By combining Fletcher's philosophy with Andrew's absurd quest for approval, the whole of Whiplash is unified by a thematic message on the damage an external locus of self-worth can cause an individual, even when the attention received from the external locus is positive. As long as someone lives their life by another person's standards, their life will be limited by those standards. If those outside standards are too low, the individual will stop once they are reached and may never realize their full potential. If on the other hand, the standards are impossible to reach, the individual will live in constant misery. Through the pressures of the story conflict, Andrew is makes a change in his character and in the process learns (along with the audience) an eternally-valuable lesson about leading a healthy and productive human existence. Though its story may be small and intimate, though its content may seem very different, Whiplash brings the same emotional impact as such films as Rocky, Batman Begins, or other similar narratives by following the same structure and delivering the same basic message: true heroes first accomplish greatness by finding the will to stand on their own and base their actions on their own personal high standards, values, and beliefs.