No one gets you like family

The Skeleton Twins. Rated M. Release date 25 September 2014. Director: Craig Johnson. Running time: 93 mins.

Perhaps the trickiest relationship to show on-screen is the one between siblings. And not just because it’s hard to find two actors who look enough like each other to pass for relatives: unless you’re dealing with very small children, siblings appear on-camera with their relationship already fully-formed, stuffed full of in-jokes and petty grievances that can seem head-scratching from the outside. 

So if The Skeleton Twins initially looks like yet another indie comedy by-the-numbers, take a closer look - the basic plot may not be all that inventive, but there’s real magic happening between the leads. Both of whom we first meet during suicide attempts: struggling LA actor Milo (Bill Hader) gets far enough to put himself in the hospital, where a call to his estranged sister, Maggie (Kristen Wiig) interrupts her own attempt to end it all. 

Flying out to visit, their awkward conversation (including one very good joke about Marley & Me) ends with him taking up her offer to come back east and stay with her and her straightforward nice-guy husband (Luke Wilson) in the family’s old stomping ground of upstate New York. 

There Milo soon tracks down a former teacher (Ty Burrell), with whom he had a relationship in high school, and if that sounds a bit dubious you’re basically on the same page as Maggie. Meanwhile her problems haven’t magically vanished with Milo’s appearance, and so she’s using an affair with her scuba instructor (Boyd Holbrook, displaying a not especially convincing Australian accent) as a way to avoid dealing with her own depression. 

Somewhat surprisingly, considering that fairly grim outline, there’s a lot of funny stuff going on in this film. Director Craig Johnson pulls out one big classic comedy moment where Milo lip-synchs to 'Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now' and gradually gets Maggie to join in, but there’s plenty of smaller moments here that are just as funny. 

The easy chemistry between Hader and Wiig plays a large role in that: the former Saturday Night Live co-stars have years of experience working together and their sibling back-and-forth never feels less than utterly real. It helps that their characters are given plenty of space to grow so that their respective issues – traceable, at least in part, to their astoundingly self-absorbed mother (a one-scene appearance by Joanna Gleason) – don’t dominate their characters. 

The rest of the cast aren’t afforded that luxury, but strong performances give the smaller roles depth: Wilson makes his nice guy more than just a chump, and Burrell lets confusion rather than exploitation guide his performance as a morally compromised ex-teacher. 

What this tries to tell audiences about damaged people is solid but uninspired: don’t deny your heart, you have to deal with your past rather than bury it, no-one gets you like family. It’s what it shows audiences in the connection between Milo and Maggie – the way that even after a decade apart they’re burrowed into each others’ lives in a thousand tiny ways – that makes this something special.


Anthony MorrisAnthony Morris is the current DVD editor of The Big Issue. Our regular film reviewer Tim Kroenert returns next week.

Topic tags: Anthony Morris, The Skeleton Twins, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Craig Johnson, film

 

 

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