When I watched Gone Girl earlier this year, I was again reminded of how few films there are that tend to actually explore the nature of sibling relationships. Often having characters be related is just a convenient plot device to explain why they’re there. It looks like I spoke too soon as here we have a new film that does just that, and actually reminded me of the gold standard for modern films about siblings, You Can Count on Me.
Former SNL cast members Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig almost totally convince as brother and sister Milo and Maggie. They completely sell having a history together, and interact in a manner that reflects both what they like and dislike about one-another. They have in-jokes, they have routines, but they can also get on each other’s nerves. The pair have great chemistry together, which may derive from their years of working together on TV. In fact the only factor that seems a little off about them is that their supposed to be estranged, having spent the best part of a decade apart.
The film begins as Milo, having drunk to lament his latest failed relationship, slits his wrists in his bathtub. Maggie receives a phone call notifying her of his hospitalisation for this just as she herself is about to down a handful of pills. She flies out to LA, where Milo has been a struggling actor for years, and brings him back to her home in New York.
Considering it’s leads, I had expected The Skeleton Twins to broadly be a comedy. Director Craig Johnson maintains a more serious tone however that commendably never becomes dour, even though the film deals with some weighty topics. In addition to suicide, we learn some details from the twins’ troubled youth involving inappropriate relationships and their father’s fate. Their despicably selfish mother has a brief appearance too. Moments of lightness punctuate the film throughout, nearly all of which come naturally from the material, and never undermine the issues addressed.
One such stand-out scene involves the siblings reconnecting via Milo dancing and lip-syncing along to cheesy eighties pop hit Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now, ultimately coercing his sister into joining him. It’s fairly easy for film-makers to just drop a decent song in to enhance an emotional moment but it’s something else to take one that’s rubbish (in my opinion anyway) and utilise it in such an effective manner. I’m probably going to think of this movie whenever I hear that song now.
Even though they’re together again, their lives are still fraught with difficulty. Maggie is stuck in a marriage with a husband named Lance (Luke Wilson) who could best be described as “nice”. He’s relentlessly friendly and optimistic, there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with him per se yet we understand why Maggie finds him so boring, mainly thanks to Wilson’s perfectly pitched performance. This definitely helps in maintaining some sympathy for her as she routinely cheats on him with her adult class instructors, leading her to more self-loathing.
Milo on the other hand attempts to re-kindle an old relationship with a closeted bookseller (Ty Burrell), a sub-plot that boosts our understanding of his past and how he came to be where he is now. Hader reveals some previously unseen dramatic chops with a first-rate performance, one scene where he talks about imagining the future from high school is particularly excellent. He skirts on just the right side of stereotype, never falling into it, he even makes an exasperated self-comparison to being “such a gay chiché” at one point.
The Skeleton Twins heads towards a somewhat predictable and not entirely satisfactory conclusion, but driven by some winning performances, it’s an engaging portrait of a difficult relationship between a brother and sister with some unexpected depth to it.