Director: Craig Johnson (True Adolescents)
Writers: Mark Heyman, Craig Johnson
Producers: Stephanie Langhoff, Jennifer Lee, Jacob Pechenik
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Boyd Holbrook, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 93 min.
There’s a long tradition in film of comedic actors transitioning into dramatic roles with indies that gravitate towards a grey area in between the two genres, particularly in movies that make sure to hit the Sundance Film Festival before their wide release. From Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl to Steve Carell in Little Miss Sunshine and beyond, the snowy sidewalks of that Utah town are practically paved with actors looking to get their drama bonafides and while plenty have faltered along the way, this year saw two of the most resoundingly successful achievements in quite some time. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are primarily known for their multiple Emmy-nominated work on “Saturday Night Live” and after leaving their long stints on the program in recent years they find themselves coming together again in a very Sundance-typical tale of two troubled siblings in Craig Johnson’s darkly comedic, surprisingly abrasive and endearingly heartfelt drama The Skeleton Twins.
At first glance, The Skeleton Twins shares more than a few similarities with another recent Sundance hit, the Oscar-nominated Tamara Jenkins film The Savages. While that feature had the star power of already-certified dramatic heavyweights Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, it also revolved around two estranged siblings forced by a hospital visit to come back together and sort out their issues, complete with adultery and a wintry setting that made it a perfect fit for that Sundance atmosphere. The Skeleton Twins does great effort at settings its own path, but Johnson and his leads are able to capture the same kind of hilarious, heartfelt and emotionally resonant experience that Jenkins and company were able to achieve and if there’s a film that you’re going to be compared to you can certainly do a lot worse. The Skeleton Twins shares plenty of familiar tropes that we’ve seen in Sundance and indie movies at large over the past decade but thanks to the sharp script by Johnson and Mark Heyman, along with a superb ensemble, it’s able to make its mark in its own very distinct way and has become one of my favorites of the year so far.
We open the film with Maggie (Wiig) and Milo (Hader) on opposite sides of the country, her in New York and him in LA, yet both of them are connected by their dissatisfaction with the state of their life. As Milo blasts Blondie’s “Denis” in his apartment, he slits his wrists and slides into the bathtub, leaving a disturbingly comical suicide note on the back of an envelope on his table. Over in New York, Maggie stands with a handful of pills, a tear running down her cheek and a conflict over whether or not she’s ready to take the plunge. Before she makes her choice she gets the call that Milo’s in the hospital and she heads across the country to see her brother for the first time in ten years. Milo, secretly begging for help while maintaining his “it’s not a big deal” attitude, agrees to stay with Maggie and her husband Lance (Luke Wilson, who delivers one of the most genuinely, effortlessly likable performances I’ve seen in years) back in their hometown and so sets up The Skeleton Twins’ basic premise of putting these two back under the same roof and having them work out their issues.
The plot doesn’t get much more intricate than that; the various running narratives are filled in with developments like Maggie’s infidelity with her scuba instructor (played by Boyd Holbrook who puts on an alarming, unnecessary Australian accent) and Milo rekindling an old, formerly illegal, affair with his high school teacher Rich (Ty Burrell in a surprisingly impressive bit of against-type casting) but Johnson’s film all comes down to these two siblings and their dynamic with each other. Casting Hader and Wiig opposite one another was a risky move, given that anyone familiar with the two could go in expecting the kind of romp that you’d imagine two recent Saturday Night Live alums to be heading together, but it’s one that paid off incredibly well thanks to their long history that has developed their relationship in a way perfect for actors playing brother and sister. For years these two were locked in a room together night after night, working out sketches for their live show into the early hours of the morning, and that kind of familial bond only furthered their chemistry in bringing these two siblings to the screen in vivid life.
They may have been estranged for ten years but there’s no denying that Maggie and Milo were raised in the same home and the two pick up exactly where they left off. Whether they’re delivering sharp jabs at the dissatisfied lives they’ve come to inhabit or embracing their similar sense of humor over a rib-busting scene of nitrous oxide use at the dental office where Maggie works (reportedly the only scene where the two legendary improvs were allowed to strut their off-script skills), Hader and Wiig have cultivated a sibling camaraderie that you simply can’t fake and yet at the same time they never fall into the traps that could have come with their years together on a show like Saturday Night Live. They may be two actors known largely for comedic work, but here the two show off their dramatic skill in equally astonishing measure and both have elevated themselves to a point where it becomes clear that they can handle both sides of the tonal coin in perfectly-measured stature.
Wiig has had some difficulty in recent years trying to make the transition to the dramatic side of things in quickly forgotten flops like Girl Most Likely and Hateship Loveship but here, aided by the support of Hader and the strong writing of Johnson and Heyman, she’s able to stretch her legs and fully convince as a woman so troubled by her life and her own self-destructive actions while never being able to properly express them to anyone around her. It’s the best work of her career to date, but the show ultimately belongs to Hader who is a revelation as Milo, a gay failed-actor having to come to terms with the fact that his life isn’t anything near what he had hoped it would be at this point. In one key scene between the two, Milo talks about how their father (who not-coincidentally ended his own life by jumping off a bridge many years ago) once told him when he was a boy that the kids who were popular in high school were only going to see their lives go downhill from there while Milo would flourish once he was able to step out into the real world — the heartbreak comes when Milo, holding back tears, states that he was the one it never got better for.
The Skeleton Twins is loaded with moments that pull on the heart strings in natural, believable ways without ever descending into nauseating “indie drama” quirks that would pull you out of the authentic experience of these two troubled siblings colliding forces with one another and knocking their damaged lives back into perspective. Over the years the two have perfected their self-managed, self-destructive ways to a point where they simply live with their unhappy existence and pretend that everything is fine to such a convincing degree that no one around them sees just how far down they’ve gotten. You can’t hide anything from your siblings though and once the two are back under the same roof it’s only inevitable that this glass house will come smashing down around them. Milo and Maggie stray the line between likable and loathsome, even teetering over into the latter at times, but Hader and Wiig constantly keep you invested in them and the clever, impactful writing makes sure to leaven the heaviest moments with plenty of warmth throughout. The film’s centerpiece, in which the two come together over a lip-sync rendition of Jefferson Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”, is as crowd-pleasing a moment as any you’ll see on screen this year and a testament to the fact that no matter how much Maggie and Milo can dig their claws into one another they will always have a bond that no one can manage to break or fully understand.