Pete (Will Ferrell) and Billy (Julia Louie Dreyfus) play a couple, whisking away for a family vacation in the Alps, with their two normally chaotic, pre-teen sons. They seem to be having fun with a side of bickering that’s normal in any family, until you see more signs that something is off. Pete can’t stop looking at his phone and even while on vacation, Pete and Billy’s relationship feels like they’re clocking in overtime at a job they may want to resign from. We learn quickly that Pete is still grieving after his dad’s death 8 months ago and this trip is an effort to help put his relationship with his family back on track.
After a fun day on the slopes, the family is about to have lunch outside when an avalanche, while slow at first, gradually builds speed and comes hurling towards them. Everyone is terrified, people are screaming and as Billy is sheltering her boys, Pete runs away. He then returns and simply orders soup like nothing happened. This is where Julia’s performance conveys everything we need to know about how she’s feeling with zero dialogue. It’s just a slight shake of the hand that puts the audience back in her shoes and reminds us “This queen just survived an avalanche solo and protected her boys while her husband left her in the dust, literally.” This is where the story takes off and we dive into why grief can change people, apathy can spread like a disease and an avalanche could be the deciding factor of whether you want to stay or pull a Pete and run away.
After this event, Pete sabotages any moment alone with Billy to discuss the event, by joining their new acquaintance, Charlotte (Miranda Otto) for dinner. Charlotte is the complete opposite of Billy who may or may not work at the hotel and has no problem sharing her sexual exploits. You can see Billy’s uneasiness grow and this scene shines a light on Julia’s ability to get us to the point where we also want to get the eff outta there based solely on her facial expressions. This moment also shows us that sex probably hasn’t been seen or heard of in her and Pete’s relationship in a while. There’s a point where Charlotte, the antithesis of Billy, ends up being Billy’s saving grace. Charlotte senses that Billy needs back up after hearing the avalanche tale, recognizing how Pete is blowing it off and Charlotte gives her an out. You can see the relief written across Billy’s face as she gets a new sense of energy, because she’s finally been acknowledged. Billy didn’t get this relief from her husband, but from a sexually charged woman, who “Can’t wait to catch new dick.” The catch dick lady, who Billy couldn’t wait to get away from, was the one who finally heard her.
A turning point in this movie is when Billy yet again tries to get time alone with Pete, but in his avoidance to discuss what happened he sneakily texts his friend and co-worker, Zach (Zach Woods) to come over with his new girlfriend, Rosie (Zoe Chao). Pete has been idolizing Zach and Rosie’s relationship on instagram where can’t seem to pull himself away from every instagram Zach and Rosie post. They post with the hashtag #NoAgenda, only highlighting how far away he is from a no agenda lifestyle. This sabotage moment #2 leads to the big scene where Julia really brings down the house. Again, Billy and Pete are faced with a couple, newly in the throws of love, displaying to them everything they aren’t. Pete blows over the avalanche incident, yet again and this is where Billy really shows how she felt. She expresses when the avalanche happened and Pete ran away, she just wrapped her arms around her boys and prepared to die. Julia gives an encore performance here, with a vulnerability that I hope to see her bring to the screen time and time again. Zach and Rosie sit in shock while Pete simply says, “I didn’t run away, you can’t run in snow boots.” This is the kind of denial that leads Billy to pull her two young sons into the conversation who admittedly say “Dad ran away”. This scene is cringe worthy and shows the juxtaposition of a young couple showing up, expecting drinks and laughs but leaving with the newfound example that sometimes love is angry, bitter and broken.
This leads to Billy wanting a solo day, while telling Pete to take the boys to the family resort. Pete is confronted with his bad choices as the kids excitedly arrive at the family friendly resort he didn’t choose and then he plays a little too rough on a ride, causing the boys to shut down. Pete is confronted with yet another way he’s failed.
Unbeknownst to Billy, Charlotte sees Billy is taking a solo day and sets her up with something she never knew she needed...a very handsome ski instructor, Guglielmo (Giulio Berruti). Charlotte leaves Billy and G to their own devices at the top of the hill, again instinctively knowing what Billy needs. After they finish their slope, Billy gets some recovery time with G, where he offers to rub her calves and then asks, “Who is Billy?”. This is another moment where Billy laughs this question off, but you can see it’s the first time she’s felt seen in a while. She’s obviously fallen to the wayside with her husband swimming in his own grief, so she takes this quick moment for herself. This moment could have gone much further if it wanted to tell a different story, but Billy got everything she’d needed at that moment...to feel wanted, seen and heard.
After the crappy day with the kids, in swings a drunk day with Pete and Zach, in which Will does a lovely job displaying that drunk, lovey-dovey side that comes out of all of us when we’ve had one too many. The libations break down those walls and once he gets past the self hatred part, Pete spews out how people die and then you start to think about yourself. He says he loves his family, but death reminded him that he can’t forget about himself. This is where we truly see that Pete does love his family, but doesn’t exactly know how to, in the midst of grieving.
The black and white explanation of this whole story comes from Rosie who bumps into Billy on the slopes. As they ride up together she says, “It’s fucked up what Pete did to you and you have every right to be angry.” This is another moment where Billy is acknowledged by yet another person who is not her husband. It’s gratifying to see Julia’s performance take in her right to be angry. We’ve all been there where all we needed was someone to say it was okay to feel the way we do, and when that happens, that kind of relief is better than sex. Or maybe that’s just me?
Then Rosie follows it up with, “If Zach ever left me like that I would kick him in the balls and I’d never see him again. It’s black and white.” When you hear her say this you recognize how it’s not so black and white when you’re married with two kids, but you also see how Billy takes this in and realizes this hashtag addict might actually be right.
I think Billy’s line to Pete, while he drunkenly admits he ran away, sums up the heart of this movie, “I just want you to want to survive an avalanche with us.” The moment where you think Pete’s admittance will clear the path, only leads to heartbreak and another check mark in the fail box for him.
This is where you can see Pete has let both grief and apathy run rampant within himself and the disappointment is written all over Billy’s face.
The finale of this film has a beautiful moment with Billy figuring out how to save her relationship with Pete while also rectifying his image, as a man, in her boys eyes. It’s a moving moment that makes this film shine for me.
After Pete says that he’s there and wants to be there, Billy says, “Also, if you’re tired of the way I look at you then show me something new.”, which may be the simplest way to save a love on the rocks. If you’re not being looked at the way you want to, then change what you’re doing.
This movie then ends on a very real moment that reminds us, not all relationships can survive an avalanche, but we can all find ways to try. DownHill may be the Valentine’s Day movie every relationship needs, with Julia’s performance being the cherry on top.