The Skeleton Twins navigates the issues of depression and mental illness with an accessible combination of humour and sincerity
After ten years apart, estranged twins Maggie (Kristin Wiig) and Milo (Bill Hader) find themselves brought together by an unlikely common goal: suicide. The film opens with Maggie on the brink of an overdose, interrupted by a call from Los Angeles telling her that Milo has attempted to slash his wrists. Hilarious, eh? Admittedly not. But Craig Johnson’s darkly comedic take on some pretty hefty subject matter proves a hit, opening up the world of depression and mental illness in a way that is immediately accessible.
The events take place in the siblings’ hometown in New York state. Following his hospitalisation, Milo travels from L.A. to spend time recuperating with Maggie, only to find himself embroiled in the drama of her deeply unstable marriage. At the heart of it, both siblings are struggling with what Maggie describes as “feeling constantly disappointed with life”. Milo believes he “peaked in high school”, while Maggie finds herself stalling plans to start a family, turning instead to a string of affairs with French cooking connoisseurs and scuba-diving instructors. While her perpetually optimistic husband, Lance (Luke Wilson), remains completely oblivious to the plight of their marriage, Maggie finds solace in Milo and the two begin to regain the closeness of their childhood. Re-establishing a long lost sibling bond could have been a painfully formulaic watch, but the mutual understanding of each other’s flaws and instabilities provide the pair with a sincerity that transcends clichés.
The real strength of this film lies in the casting. Wiig and Hader’s chemistry is undeniable, supplying their on–screen relationship with the kind of brother-sister inside humour that they have established over years of collaborative work. But there’s an edge to their characters’ closeness too, and however hard they try to help each other up, it’s ultimately their shared insecurities that bring them right back down.
Luke Wilson’s portrayal of the endlessly good-natured Lance is also hard not to love. After all, who can resist a man who clears vast quantities of woodland with his bare hands and scales climbing walls in tight, functional trousers? But it’s his wholesome, big-hearted nature that makes him so wrong for Maggie, and this conflicting element runs quietly throughout. Even Billy (Boyd Hoybrook) is brilliantly cast as Maggie’s scuba instructor lover, excellently treading the line between the mysterious erotic stranger and a creepy outcast with the tendency to caress oxygen tubing.
Taking a comedic approach to mental health issues could have been a disaster, but here, Johnson really makes it work. The laughably dysfunctional relationships between the key characters and their strained attempts to restore order are far from neatly packaged, but, rather, they are left exposed and unresolved. Far from trivialising the issues, the use of comic actors in the main roles resists sentimentalising their problems, instead providing us with an everyday picture of what living with depression can mean. Some days are funny, and some are brutally sad. The climax of this tension arguably comes in Hader and Wiig’s expertly choreographed lip-synch of Starship’s hit ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’. Aside from the stark truth that this is one of the greatest power ballads ever written, this is also an undeniably uplifting scene: things have almost certainly hit rock bottom but there’s still laughs in there somewhere.
Leaving the key questions unanswered is what gives The Skeleton Twins its edge. The concluding scenes are slightly disappointing and display a predictability that is absent from the rest of the film, yet the major dilemmas facing the characters are still left largely unresolved. The result is a story that asks questions without offering any real answers, that allows us an insight into depression without trivialising or reducing it. At the heart of it, this film is about life not going quite the way you expected; where it will go from here, that is for us to conclude.
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