Ask anyone who’s been an adult for longer than about five minutes if life has ever disappointed them, and the odds are you will get, with varying degrees of emotional candour, a shaking of the head, followed by a prolonged sigh and a knowing glance that suggests the business of living never quite matches the vaulting expectations of youth.
Some cope with this letdown better than others, a theme explored in director Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins (he co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Heyman) which features powerful performances by two Saturday Night Live alums, Bill Hader and Kirsten Wiig as dysfunctional brother and sister Milo and Maggie, who truth be told, never even really have the benefit of feeling hopeful about life in their oft blighted younger years.
Cursed with a mother more concerned with mystical New Age philosophies that being present in the lives of her children, and the premature loss of their Halloween-obsessed fun-loving if eccentric father to suicide when they were just 14, both struggle to fashion workable, functional lives out of the rather tattered cards they have been dealt, so much so that the film begins with the attempted suicides of both siblings.
Neither are successful, outcomes which owe more to chance than anything else, with Milo’s dramatically loud suicide-accompanying music leading to complaints by the neighbours and the breaking down of the door by the building super, and Maggie’s quiet contemplation of the drugs in her hand interrupted by a call from an LA hospital (she is still in their New York state hometown) to say that Milo is now in their care.
Having not spoken for ten years, Maggie’s arrival at the hospital is fraught with awkwardness, and a request by Milo that his sister simply leave him alone to wallow in “sad gay cliche” he has become, but having had only each other to rely on since childhood, they are compelled to try and uncover their once easy rapport, which soon returns in fits and starts, to the point that Milo agrees to accompany Maggie back to their hometown where her happy-go-lucky husband Lance (Luke Wilson) is waiting, while he recuperates.
A complete contrast to his pensive wife, who is unable to stop sleeping with the men who teach the classes she takes including Aussie scuba diving instructor Billy (Boyd Holbrook), and her equally ill-at-ease with life brother, Lance is the subject of quite a bit of scrutiny, and envious bemusement by the two who can’t quite understand how anyone can be that, well, happy.
The idea of taking life as it comes, and enjoying the ride come what may, is a foreign concept to the two, who are patently unable to move beyond the unhealthy dynamics of their youth, personified for Milo most potently by the town’s bookshop owner, his ex-English teacher, Rich (Ty Burrell) who commenced an affair with a needy Milo when he was just 15.
While the underage affair was never made public, it left an indelible impression on the young man who still longs for what he considers a treasured sexual and emotional awakening and Maggie views as a transgression so heinous that news that Milo has re-connected with a closeted Rich sends her into a rage that spoils their till-then fun and carefree Halloween celebrations.
Their estrangement doesn’t last of course but it is symptomatic of a relationship where they are each other’s best friend’s. worst enemies, and the only ones who truly have each other’s backs, their ability to heal the other every bit as potent as their ability to hurt and maim.
But as Maggie reminds Milo one night, they are all each other has, and they have to be there for each other, and her fury that Milo still doesn’t seem to fully appreciate this threatens to once again split the two apart.
Bleak and dire though it may sound, what gives The Skeleton Twins a vibrancy and sense of intense watchability, apart from its rich emotional authenticity (you really do buy almost instantly that the two characters are a brother and sister with a complicated past) is the humour that exists between the siblings.
It’s evidenced most delightfully one night when Milo, attempting to cheer his sister up after another run-in between the two, starts lip-syncing and performing with all the flourish he can muster, and it is considerable, Starship’s fabulously kitschy ’80s song “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”.
After some resistance, Maggie joins in the fun (while an amused Lance looks on); the scene, along with an earlier one in the hospital in L.A. where Maggie accidentally spoils the ending of Marley and Me for Milo, to eventual shared laughter, and some playing around with laughing gas and a deep and meaningful chat at the dental surgery where Maggie works one night, underline the shared sensibilities of the two in meaningful but dramatically understated ways.
While The Skeleton Twins does have a happy ending of sorts, its aims is not to celebrate the fact that everything works out for the best in the end.
In fact, you get the impression that any endings that don’t result in death are a welcome anomaly, with neither sibling promising the other that anything other than doing their best can be aimed for.
What is most satisfying about this all too real, serious and hilarious in equal measure film, is that you come to appreciate that life can still be worth living even when it is weighted down with the suffocating pull of disappointment.
It may not be what you think you were promised, or what you want most of the time, and you may struggle with the idea that you peaked in high school rather than the other way around as Milo does in one especially poignant confession, but if there’s one thing that The Skeleton Twins makes clear, in its incisive but gently observational way, it’s that if you have someone to go through it with, and they matter to you, no matter how imperfect the realtionship may be, then life is definitely worth sticking around for.