“The Skeleton Twins,” directed by Craig Johnson, grapples with ambiguous moral questions with few moments of comic relief. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2014, and began showing in select cities across the U.S. in September of 2014. However, since it has recently become available for streaming on Netflix and Hulu, I was able to watch it again and review it.
Starring Saturday Night Live hotshots Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, “The Skeleton Twins” centers on the relationship between estranged brother and sister, Milo and Maggie, as they overcome past and present family drama.
While not completely breaking the norms of the indie film genre, Wiig and Hader weave together a compelling story of despair and renewal. The film largely follows the conventions of the indie genre, from the hyperrealistic cinematography to the existential angst.
The action begins with Milo and Maggie attempting suicide on the same day on opposite coasts, having not seen each other in ten years. If it were not for the easy rapport between Wiig and Hader in their few scenes of sketch-like comedic bonding, the film would feel like a catalogue of tragic events. The material of the film is heavy, as Maggie is frustrated and despairing at her own infidelity and Milo confronts the pain of sexual abuse in his past.
The issues discussed in “The Skeleton Twins” are by no means original, but their take is nonetheless refreshing. Maggie finds herself chafing against the constraints of her traditional marriage, echoing the uneasiness with traditional marriage explored in the film “Take This Waltz,” starring Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, and Sarah Silverman.
Milo, meanwhile, has to face the failure of his artistic aspirations. “Girl Most Likely,” also starring Kristen Wiig, similarly deals with the disillusionment of not living up to one’s artistic potential and how to navigate the “extended adolescence” of one’s late twenties.
The moments in which the two actors play off each other’s comedic energy are the ones that struck me as most human. For example, at one point, the twins get high in a dentist office in a scene reminiscent of an SNL sketch, impressions and props included. Though the scene is largely irrelevant to the plot development, it was one of the few moments that I felt a connection to the characters.
But there is a larger narrative that occasionally bursts through. It can be easy to get lost in the present happenings of the film so that the baggage of the characters’ past is not as fully realized.
The film is bookended by the sibling’s suicide attempts. The depth of their emotional suffering would be difficult to grasp without the sense of family destiny that is set by their parents. With a loving father who committed suicide and a distant mother who all but abandoned them, Maggie and Milo seem to have raised each other. They may have done so imperfectly, as we can see during their conversation outside the bar (Bill Hader in all-out drag), but ultimately, they are each other’s saving grace. It is not until they are reunited that their lives can have a feeling of completeness.
Although it wasn’t what I expected, Wiig and Hader’s artistry in portraying such vulnerable characters makes “The Skeleton Twins” worth watching. All that to say, I would have liked to see a more upbeat twist on the traditionally angsty tropes of the indie film genre.
Just prepare to engage with the siblings’ heavy emotional reality that is interspersed with moments of bright camaraderie.