On Jan. 8, 1935, Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Miss. His twin brother, Jesse, was stillborn.
But what if Elvis' brother had lived? That's the oddly provocative question posed by The Identical, a movie not actually about Elvis all. How's that? Well, it's about twin brothers Ryan and Drexel who are separated at birth—and end up, for the purposes of this story, sounding and looking a whole lot like the King.
Their story begins in Depression-decimated Alabama in 1935, when impoverished newlyweds William and Helen Hemsley joyfully discover they're going to have a baby. Joy turns into anxiety, however, when Helen delivers twins—a burden that overwhelms her unemployed young husband who's already struggling to provide for his fledgling family.
William seeks solace at a revival, where a local minister confesses while preaching that he and his wife have had a miscarriage and won't be able to have children. The minister asks for his congregants' prayers. William and Helen figure they might be holding the answer to those prayers, so they offer one of their babies to the Reverend Reece Wade and his wife, Louise—first extracting the promise that the boy would not be told of his true parentage until both of his biological parents had passed away.
Ryan Wade, then, grows up in church under the stern-but-earnest tutelage of his straight-arrow father, who's determined to mold his adopted son in his own image. A submissive sort, Ryan's not hostile to his father's faith. But neither does he sense the sacred calling his dad is so certain of. Instead, his soul comes to life when he's singing—a gift his father thinks little of (but one his mother encourages).
Sneaking into a roadhouse with his friend Dino, Ryan's eyes—and, more importantly, his ears—are opened to a world he's never experienced, the world of rhythm and blues in the heady days before the birth of rock 'n' roll.
But while Ryan's enraptured, Dad's infuriated. And Ryan's destiny remains undecided. Or at least it does until Drexel "The Dream" Hemsley appears on the scene, a singer who looks and sounds so much like Ryan that they could be … twins.
After seeing and hearing Drexel, there's nothing—not enlisting in the Army, not going to Bible school, not getting married, and certainly not working as a mechanic—that can thwart Ryan's own undeniable musical calling. But wholeheartedly laying hold of that destiny, as well as escaping the shadow of his devout father and his famous brother, is something that will take decades to accomplish.
The Identical intertwines meaningful themes of faith, family, fatherhood, forgiveness and finding your true calling in life.
Never mind that the two often disagree about some pretty big choices, Ryan loves his father and embraces the faith that's been handed down to him. For his part, the senior Wade has vowed to raise Ryan as one set apart, someone preordained, as it were, for a special destiny.
Ryan pulls away from his father's pastoral vision for him, but he never descends into out-and-out rebellion. Even that first trip to the roadhouse with the rascally Dino is depicted more as an act of curiosity than an angry rejection of his father's values. And while Dad's not able to give a wholehearted blessing to his son's pursuits, he's wise enough to realize that Ryan has to make his own way. He later apologizes for trying to push Ryan down a path of his own construction, tearfully telling his son he should have believed in him sooner.
Eventually, not all in a rush—and that's important in this tale—Ryan does get the chance to begin singing his songs.
As for Drexel, his story isn't the focus. But when he is shown, he's almost always drinking something and looking very sad. In that way, the movie suggests that fame and fortune alone aren't enough to make someone happy (much less clean and sober).
Reece Wade is a deeply committed Christian. In his mind, there are the things of God and then there's everything else. His is a sharp sacred-secular dichotomy, and he won't be talked out of it. Because of that, he sincerely believes anything less than Ryan following in his ministerial footsteps constitutes capitulating to a lesser—and disobedient—calling.
In contrast, Louise has a wider conception of what it looks like to embrace God's calling. Ryan tells her, "I don't hear this call Daddy wants me to hear. … It hurts so bad, Momma, because [music's] the only call I hear." She responds, "It's a man's job to learn to stand in His truth." Speaking of Jesus, she goes on to say, "If He is in it, nothing can stand against it." That message gets reiterated when Ryan's wife, Jenny, later says, "I guess it's true: If He is in our dreams, no one can stand against them."
Reece speaks of spending 40 years as a minister, faithfully running the race marked out for him in his own spiritual calling, a course that was demanding at times. Preaching during the Great Depression, he tells congregants that people need "healing, prayer and hope in a frightening time." He affirms that "blacks, whites, Jews and gentiles are all equal in the eyes of the Lord," a progressively godly stance for 1935. He emphasizes Christians' responsibility to pray for Israel, declaring, "God loves His chosen people."
We repeatedly hear the admonition from Acts 20:35, "It's better to give than to receive," and Reece says that sometimes God's answers to our prayers is "wait." We also hear references to Hebrews 10, Jeremiah 29 and Romans 12. And Reece preaches about Jonah's flight from God. Father tells son, "Our job is to be who He made us to be and do what He made us to do." Later, of course, Ryan turns that instruction back on his father in defense of his singing aspirations, saying, "I'm just trying to be what He made me to be, not something else." A conversation references Jesus' telling Peter how many times someone should be forgiven.
Drexel's and Ryan's dance moves include hip shaking. Scenes at the roadhouse feature couples dancing in mildly sensual ways. Jenny suggestively drags her husband off camera when they're reunited after a long separation. She wears a cleavage-baring dress.
A police officer hits Ryan in the face twice when the young man (who's still underage) tries to explain what he's doing at the roadhouse. We hear about a plane crash. Someone has a heart attack.
Crude or Profane Language
One exclamation of "h---." We hear singular uses of "oh my god" and "oh my lord."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Dino has a penchant for hard drink. As noted, he's the one who drags Ryan to the roadhouse before they're legally old enough to be there—which doesn't stop Dino from getting both of them beers with a fake ID he brags about. Ryan, though, isn't interested in drinking or smoking (which Dino also does). At a low point, Ryan does go to a bar and order a whiskey, but then decides not to drink it and gets a Dr. Pepper instead. Drexel, in contrast, is repeatedly shown with a drink in his hand. (His drinking is paired with pained, depressed-looking facial expressions.)
A police officer references rebellious young people smoking "hootie weed" and "reefer."
Other Negative Elements
That same cop describes a roadhouse full of African-Americans as "dark and nasty." Instead of letting anyone know what they've done when they give up their son, William and Helen lie, telling others that the child has died. They even have a funeral for him.
So here's a premise that's sure to make Baby Boomers and music fans of all ages sit up and take notice: What if Elvis' twin brother had lived? The Identical pairs that intriguing question with recognizable names like Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, Seth Green and Joe Pantoliano. And newcomer Blake Rayne brings a whole lotta Elvis attitude to the proceedings as well.
Now add an inspirational message about fatherhood and forgiveness as this wholesome, engaging tale unspools, keeping me wondering right until the end what was going to happen.
While I suspect that the film may skew, appeal-wise, toward an older audience—those Boomers I mentioned—there's a lot here for young and old alike to ponder and talk about after the songs fade and the credits roll. Because in addition to delivering an entertaining "what if?" story, The Identical also asks some interesting questions about it means to follow God and to discern our calling in life.
Rev. Wade, for example, strongly adheres to a view of the world that used to be more common, one in which a sacred calling was valued above all other vocational endeavors—especially something as "worldly" as singing. Ryan, however, embodies a more recent way of understanding calling and vocation, one that sees the inherent gifts and talents God has given us as ways to honor and glorify Him—whether that's in the ministry, working a blue collar job or performing on a stage.
These contrasting illustrations of how it is we're supposed to decide what our calling is—what we're actually supposed to do—make The Identical a terrific springboard to an after-movie conversation about our own lives. What do we care about? What are we most passionate about? How have we had opportunities to use those gifts and passions? Where have we felt stymied or run into roadblocks? Does God ever just talk to us directly, or do we always have to figure this stuff out on our own?
Not a bad day's work for a couple of kids who just so happen to be Elvis lookalikes.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Blake Rayne as Ryan Wade and Drexel Hemsley; Ray Liotta as Reece Wade; Ashley Judd as Louise Wade; Brian Geraghty as William Hemsley; Amanda Crew as Helen Hemsley; Erin Cottrell as Jenny; Seth Green as Dino; Joe Pantoliano as Avi
Dustin Marcellino ( )
September 5, 2014
January 13, 2015