It’s difficult to walk into a film without at least some semblance of a preconception as to what you’re about to watch. You’re usually going to have some opinion on the actors, the director, the concept and so on. With that said, I stepped into The Skeleton Twins expecting the kind of quirky family-ties comedy that’s typical of SNL veterans Bill Hader and Kirsten Wiig, its two stars. What I instead ended up with was a surprisingly nuanced character piece, the quiet tale of an estranged and broken pair of people rallying together in one final attempt to sort their messy existences out.
Hader and Wiig play Milo and Maggie, respectively, a pair of emotionally and geographically estranged twins. When Milo’s failed suicide attempt leaves Maggie with little option but to take him in, the two of them embark on a staggered voyage of re-connection and recollection. There are a few peripheral characters, like Maggie’s husband played by Luke Wilson and an absolutely wonderful supporting turn from Ty Burrell, but this is Maggie and Milo’s story first and everything else second.
It’s a familiar sort of story, but The Skeleton Twins stands out for its incredibly precise balance of comedy and genuine drama. The humour itself is about as natural as it’s possible to be, with every single laugh in the film stemming from deadpan dialogue and completely realistic social situations. The laughs are re-balanced by the genuine power and hurt that’s on constant show throughout the film, and there is never a point where a punch is pulled for the sake of a cheap laugh – but neither are there any laughs pulled for the sake of over-dramatizing. It’s incredibly well-pitched, and a film that could so easily have slipped into navel-gazing drudgery or screwball trivializations ends up feeling completely natural.
Wiig and Hader have both significantly toned down their comic personas here, Milo and Maggie are both softly-spoken and downtrodden people who probably couldn’t appropriately spring a one-liner if they wanted to. While they are both great turns, Hader is especially wonderful with a mumbled and softly spoken performance punctuated with outrageous lines and the perfect amount of emotional insight. You get a real sense that everyone involved in the project was a little bit in love with the two of them, with flaws that could easily have been picked apart or picked upon – for example Milo’s high school fling with a significantly older man – instead accepted as just another piece of the dramatic tapestry. These are believable people, foibles and all, and the film has such a good heart that you don’t begrudge Maggie and Milo their mistakes – that’s just the way people are.
Most of the film’s characters are so quiet that the handful of outbursts leave you emotionally shaken, with one particularly biting backyard argument so sudden and damaging that it proves to be a physical shock to the system. This is a movie of quiet grace and muted cinematography, a film about domestic squabbles over birth control and muddling through it all. In a lesser movie, it’d be easy to throw this all away as another of those “Plight of the Middle Class Films” that has swamped indie cinema since its incubation, but there is a point where characters are so believable and the dialogue is so well-written that it rises above such simplistic definitions.
And the dialogue is most certainly well-written. Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson have managed to construct an engaging set of characters, with even those on the periphery refusing to conform to stereotypes, the only exception being Boyd Holbrook’s tattooed surfer-douche, who – while key to the plot – feels like an under-written caricature when compared to the rest of the cast. It’s a screenplay that doesn’t spell backstory out for you, instead leaving the audience to figure out Maggie and Milo’s mutedly tragic pasts for themselves. Expository hand-holding is usually one of the crowning flaw of the modern indie comedy, and it’s nice to see something so dedicated to its own brand of realism.
I honestly didn’t see this film coming – it’s not that I expected a worse movie, but merely a thoroughly different one. The Skeleton Twins proved to be a very pleasant surprise indeed, boasting a wealth of characters and an emotional heft to match its real-world brand of comedy. It’s not the loudest, it’s not the funniest, but in its own familiar-yet-different way The Skeleton Twins is a wonderful comedy-drama made with heart and filled with plenty of broken ones.