The Identical is sort of hard to pin down. On one level, it’s a tour of rock ’n roll nostalgia through the 50s, 60s and 70s. But more deeply, it’s a kind of fairy tail about fathers and sons, the generations, the music, and finding your calling in the world.
Not terribly original stuff, but The Identical goes at them so directly that, while it doesn’t quite make the old new again, it certainly reminds us why the old was valuable in the first place.
The film opens on William and Helen Hemsley (Brian Geraghty and Amanda Crew), a young couple trying to hack out a life in the midst of the 1930s and the Great Depression. Helen is pregnant, and when she gives birth to identical twin boys William is stricken, because he knows they cannot possibly support them both. Struggling for answers, he stumbles upon a tent revival sermon being held by Reece Wade (Ray Liotta). William is moved both by Wade’s passion and moral uprightness – he gives multiple sermons over the course of the film in defense of equality and thundering against racism and anti-semitism – and by the fact that Wade and his wife Louise (Ashley Judd) have been unable to conceive.
So William and Helen decide to give the Wades one of their boys, figuring each family will have the resources to give one child a good life. Reece is so moved by this gesture that he dedicates the boy – now named Ryan Wade – to God, and as he grows up Reece grooms him to follow into the ministry. But life, as it often does, has other plans, and Ryan quickly discovers a prodigious talent for music and singing. By the time the 50s roll around, a young adult Ryan (Blake Rayne) is sneaking off to honkey tonks to bask in the rise of rock ’n roll.
Ryan remains a good preacher’s kid; he doesn’t drink, and he treats Jenny O’Brien (Erin Cottrell) – the date he brings along at one point – with the utmost respect. But Ryan’s love of music and his willingness to break curfew also stretch the limits of his father’s understanding, and eventually a confrontation between father and son convinces Reece to ship Ryan off to the army. But upon Ryan’s return to the town, he discovers a new rock ’n roll star named Drexel Hemsley, for whom he’s a dead identical ringer. (Three guesses as to who Drexel’s parents are.) It doesn’t take long for Ryan’s own talent to be spotted, and his career as a Drexel impersonator takes off – setting him on an inevitable collision course with his father and the truth about his parentage.
There are really so many ways this could go wrong. Ryan’s voice and singing and styles of dress are sumptuous and obvious Elvis rip-offs; some of the bit players – like the cop who breaks up a performance at a honky tonk, or the manager who kick-starts Ryan’s improvisation career – are diamond-pure caricatures; the way the film’s visual design invokes its different historical eras are a sledge-hammer to the nose. It’s amazing the whole thing can still be taken seriously.
And yet it works.
The Identical plunges so deep into aesthetic nostalgia it sort of pierces the veil of ironic detachment and emerges whole on the other side. The script by Howard Klausner tells its scenes in punchy, efficient, bite-sized chunks. That foregrounds the story, because at a merciful one hour and forty minutes there simply isn’t time for the movie to linger on its visual historical references. They become background flourishes, adding to the overall hum of the thing rather than distracting the audience’s attention.
The film also earns a huge amount of goodwill with the 1930s prologue, told in black and white, about the Hemsley’s struggles. The sequence is both surprisingly dark and profoundly moving. The filmmakers treat the characters’ religious beliefs and blunt sense of moral duty with respect. In particular, both the script and Liotta have the intelligence to realize that Reece’s resistance to his son’s love of music arises not out of some intense moralistic bigotry, but out of his own generational understandings mixed in with his profound emotional investment in the commitment he made to William and Helen to raise their son well. Watch the scene where Ryan tells his father he’s abandoning the ministry, and the way Liotta reacts to the news with profound grief rather than clenched rage.
Blake Rayne is also well-suited to the titular role, comfortably embodying the not-quite-Elvis aesthetic while also finding just the right ways to communicate genuine emotional information through the paths of that particular physicality.
Ultimately, The Identical is not terribly deep. It touches on a lot of ideas – religion, tolerance, the freeing power of music, generational conflict, the mysterious origins of talent, and what it’s like to exist as an artist in a greater performer’s shadow – without digging too far beneath the surface of any of them. But the mosaic is affective, especially because no one in the story is ultimately a villain. It’s a story of good people trying to do the best they can, which means the climactic catharsis lies not in victory or conquest, but in healing and reconciliation. The music ain’t bad either.