After a decade of not talking to each other, traumatic events bring estranged twins Milo and Maggie back together again. They unexpectedly renew their close childhood bond – a relationship in which drama and comedy are never far apart.
Blood Is Thicker Than Water by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Actors more usually known for comedy on NBC’s Saturday Night Live make for a painfully funny look at troubled sibling relationships in The Skeleton Twins. Kristen Wiig (Maggie) and Bill Hader (Milo) are superb as estranged 30-something twins who both coincidentally attempt suicide on the same day. A phone call from the hospital to alert Maggie to failed actor Milo’s suicide attempt in his lonely apartment in Los Angeles interrupts hers in her autumnal East Coast home. She visits her brother in hospital and brings him back to stay with her and her permanently cheerful, uncomplicated husband Lance (sensitively played by Luke Wilson, most recently seen in Playing It Cool).
Lance is Maggie’s way of trying to create a normal suburban life, but it clearly isn’t working for her, though Lance is happy and not smart enough to see this. Even as adults, both Maggie and Milo are still troubled by terrible events from their childhood. The truth behind it is revealed gradually as their relationship revives. It turns out to be their father’s suicide, which they connect with a family Halloween party and the skeleton figures he gave them – and now their matching skeleton tattoos. The truth is slowly revealed too about the incident that drove them apart ten years ago. Back in his hometown after ten years and prompted by his failed suicide attempt to come to terms with why he originally left, Milo gets back in touch with his ex-lover, his former high school teacher Rich (Ty Burrell from Modern Family), and old hurts resurface.
What raises The Skeleton Twins above what could be a sentimental ‘learning and sharing’ drama is the strong chemistry between Wiig and Hader. Milo is a vulnerable, sensitive and intensely lovable character, wary of falling into the trap of becoming a “sad, gay cliché”. Maggie is more of an emotional mess than she allows herself to realise. Relationships between the main characters are emotionally complex. Grudgingly back together at last, the twins finally cement their re-bonding in two very funny scenes: one where each reveals potentially damaging secrets to the other while they imbibe laughing gas at the dentist’s where Maggie works as a hygienist; and another where Milo lipsynchs flamboyantly to Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now to cheer Maggie up – and eventually succeeds in making her duet with him.
Released in the UK just a week too late for Halloween, the film has a crucial Halloween fancy-dress parade scene through the small town, where farce and tragedy combine in a chasmic mismatch between the emotional and the visual, as it does to a lesser extent in the two scenes above. With Milo in plump, blonde-bewigged drag and Maggie in cowboy hat and boots, as they at first companionably share beers in a bar, we finally learn what drove them apart and we see that it still has the power to do so. That is, unless they find that this time round they have reached a new level of grown-up intimacy that can overcome it. Their new rapport is comically enhanced by their joint appalled reactions a rare flying visit from their blithely over-the-top mother (Joanna Gleason), a one-woman emotional steamroller, now living a smug alternative lifestyle in the New Age heartland of Sedona. Eventually, as things seem to falling apart all around them, they realise that the key to improving their lives is to confront their old traumas head on, for each to make the other see what they have been hiding all their life and patch up their relationship.
The Skeleton Twins is director Craig Johnson’s second film from a screenplay he co-wrote with film school friend Mark Heyman, who went on to write Black Swan. It won Best Screenplay at the Sundance Film Festival – though a fair bit of the dialogue, in fact, was improvised by the film’s actors, he says – including some of the funniest lines. His first, True Adolescents in 2009, was his thesis film at film school, after which he was hired for the newly implemented writer’s studio from 20th Century Fox.
The Skeleton Twins is released on 7th November 2014 in the UK