As unlikely as it may seem for a movie in which depression, suicide and family dysfunction sit front and centre of the narrative, I found The Skeleton Twins to be an immensely enjoyable film. This enjoyment didn’t necessarily stem from the fact that I found the issues being explored to be particularly fun (although there are some hilarious moments), but more from the fact that they are handled in such a mature, forthright and honest way; such a rarity in contemporary cinema, or films from any era for that matter. It is so refreshing to see mental illness presented will all the contradictions and complexities that such disorders quite often entail. Directed and co-written by Craig Johnson – whose only other feature film is True Adolescents (2009) – The Skeleton Twins is a wonderful film in so many respects, not the least of which is the performances by Saturday Night Live alumni Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader in the lead roles. Almost everything about this film is pitch perfect; from the off-kilter sense of humour that pervades the drama to the feelings of loneliness and regret that make the characters and their plight seem both complex and very real.
Wiig (Bridesmaids, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) and Hader (Superbad, Paul) co-star as Maggie and Milo, twins who live on opposite sides of the country and haven’t spoken to each other for more than 10 years. Maggie has remained in their New York hometown while Milo uprooted to Los Angeles with acting aspirations, only to find himself working as a waiter. Despite their estrangement, there is still an eerily close connection between them, as evidenced in the opening scene when both are on the brink of self-destruction. In fact, the only thing that prevents Maggie from swallowing a handful of pills is a phone call informing her that Milo has attempted suicide. From this point, it would be very easy for the story to fall into cliché and predictability as the two siblings reconnect, but that never really happens due to the complexity of the characters and the circumstances of their lives. When Maggie brings Milo home, it is just as much to do with her own abject loneliness as it is about Milo’s recuperation. Maggie just can’t find happiness and, as many people suffering depression do, she goes out of her way to jeopardise anything that is good in her life, such as her marriage to the infuriatingly nice Lance (Luke Wilson).
Hader finds the perfect balance in his portrayal of the gay Milo; effeminate but never flamboyantly so, while Wiig is splendid as a woman clinging desperately to the ‘normal’ life that she has constructed for herself, all the while undermining it at every opportunity. The supporting characters – Ty Burrell’s teacher-cum-bookshop owner who seduced a young Milo many years ago, and the twins’ new age mother Judy (Joanna Gleason) – are, at face value, heinous, but to simply dismiss them as nasty and self-absorbed is a failure to understand the complexity of their circumstances. This is an intelligent screenplay that expects the audience to do some of the work in understanding the characters, their motivations and their behaviours. Lance is so nice to all and sundry that, even though he is annoying beyond belief, you can’t help but feel that he deserves far better.
The chemistry between Wiig and Hader is palpable, so natural as to suggest a close off-screen friendship, and the scene in which they lip-sync to Starship’s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now is one if the funniest scenes you will ever see. The duo handle the transition from comedic to dramatic – sometimes in an instant, such as during their Halloween hijinks – without ever missing a beat. Johnson explores the notion of depression as a hereditary affliction and never shies away from the implications of this illness on sufferers and the other people in their lives. As such, the ending is about as optimistic as we can expect and even when Maggie demands that Milo never attempt suicide again, he is unable to make any such promise. This really is a fine film and the only bum note is the ridiculous accent from Boyd Holbrook as scuba instructor Billy. This misstep aside, The Skeleton Twins is funny, dramatic, poignant, brutally honest and highly recommended.