Sundance: Episode One

Reports on Lilting and Whiplash

by Amber Wilkinson

Miles Teller in Whiplash
Miles Teller in Whiplash Photo: Daniel McFadden
The two Day One Sundance films I caught offered a pianoforte of contrast in tone and style. From the UK came Lilting, a (sometimes too) softly spoken poem of a film tackling bereavement and the importance of finding a common language, while the US brought the spiky jazz riff of Whiplash, a music school movie with unexpected menaces.

Ben Wishaw continues to prove he is one of the brightest young British actors working today with his portrayal of Richard a bereaved gay man who is trying to contend with the loss of boyfriend Kai (Andrew Leung), at the same time as trying to work out how to help Kai's Chinese-Cambodian mum Junn (Cheng Pei-Pei).

The problem for Richard is that in addition to blaming him for her recent move into an old folks' home, Junn also speaks virtually no English and has no idea that her son was gay. Writer/director Hong Khaou shows that understanding is dependent on more than words alone, as Junn finds herself falling for fellow home resident Alan (Peter Bowles), while Richard becomes increasingly desperate to somehow forge a connection, enlisting the help of an interpreter (Naomi Christie) in a bid to help. Khaou uses the language barrier to his advantage, showing how people miscommunicate and withhold information from one another. Cheng is fabulous as the stubborn and suffering matriarch, while Bowles' performance makes you wonder why he isn't as inundated with film roles as Bill Nighy.

The film's biggest problem lies in the pacing, which has a tendency to drag - particularly in a repeated scene. This is nevertheless a thoughtful film, which belies its small budget and shows that communication can come in many forms.

Andrew, the main character in Whiplash, isn't big on communication either, with his chief outlet being a drum kit. A jazz student at the top - and fictional - Schaffer Academy in New York, he is determined to be the best of the best no matter what the cost. He isn't counting on tutor Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), howevere, whose bloody mindedness extends way beyond Andrew's ambition. When Fletcher brings Andrew into his jazz orchestra, it quickly becomes apparent that he is both good cop and bad cop - though mostly bad, waging psychological warfare on his students in a bid to make them be the best of the best.

Fletcher rules not by back-slapping but slap downs and writer/director Damien Chazelle - expanding from the short which took the top prize at Sundance 2013 - uses the swing of the jazz and beat of Andrew's drums to ratchet up the tension. A romantic subplot, which aims to illustrate Andrew's one-track mind when it comes to music is the film's only weak note. This is the best thing that Simmons - so wasted in the upcoming Labor Day - has done on the big screen for years, while Miles Teller, who was so good in last year's Sundance film The Spectacular Now cements his name as one to watch.

Cheng Pei Pei and Ben Wishaw in Lilting
Cheng Pei Pei and Ben Wishaw in Lilting Photo: James Dewar

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