‘Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can supply.’ Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.’ Philip Larkin, This Be The Verse
Even the best parents can inflict some form of lifelong damage upon their children. But when parents are outright mad, bad or dangerous – or in the case of the funny, bittersweet comic drama The Skeleton Twins, so depressed they commit suicide – the damage can feel impossible to bear, even decades down the track.
This is where we meet estranged thirty-something twins, Maggie (Kristen Wiig) and Milo (Bill Hader), whose father jumped off a bridge when they were twelve years old. Now living on opposite sides of the country, they simultaneously, and unknown to each other, plan their own final escapes. Milo, an unsuccessful actor whose boyfriend has just broken up with him, feeds his goldfish, writes a note (‘See ya later’ with a smiley face) and slits his wrists in the bath. Meanwhile, Maggie, an unhappy, compulsively promiscuous wife, is saved from her own act of despair (a big handful of crunchy-looking pills) when the hospital calls her as Milo’s next-of-kin. He’s survived, and she’s in charge of his care now. Maggie and Milo haven’t spoken in ten years, but when they meet up and riff about the book he’s reading – with bandaged wrists, he holds up the classic dead-dog sob story Marley and Me – their banter reveals a bond based on a brand of cruel and crazy humour that only siblings, and fellow survivors of trauma, could share.
It’s this humour – unafraid to get dark and dirty at times, as well as be very silly and juvenile at others – that makes Skeleton Twins such a delight. Directed by Craig Johnson (The Adolescents) who co-wrote the script with Mark Heyman (Black Swan), The Skeleton Twins also features two lead performers who work beautifully together. Wiig and Hader have worked closely together for seven years on Saturday Night Live sketches, and the result in this film is a well-honed chemistry. This familiarity translates nicely to their depiction of a brother and sister who know each other’s weaknesses intimately, as well as having the ability to crack each other up with a single glance or word. They crack us up too, in scenes like their unforgettable karaoke mime to Starship’s classic cheesy 80s anthem ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’; or their adventures in Maggie’s workplace, a dentist’s office, where they chug on laughing gas and get hysterical over farting gags. As with the best dramedies, the laughter and the tears are never far apart, often occurring close together in the space of a single scene.
The closeness of the twins – and the natural shorthand they’ve developed from years of childhood playing and fighting – is brought into sharp relief when we see them interacting with Maggie’s upbeat husband, Lance (Luke Wilson). He’s the kind of guy who loves indoor rock-climbing and uses the word ‘awesome’ a lot. He adores Maggie, but doesn’t understand her. The twins’ camp, bitter humour floats over his head, and he looks on bemused at their penchant for dress-ups and make-believe. He’s blithely unaware that his wife is cheating on him – not just with her scuba instructor (Boyd Holbrook, doing a passable Australian accent), but by secretly taking her birth control pills when the couple is supposedly trying for a baby. It seems she’s taken Philip Larkin’s poem to heart and is following his advice to, ‘Get out as early as you can. And don’t have any kids yourself.’ Yet it’s to the film’s credit that Lance is a nuanced and sensitively portrayed character, never merely the dumb-bunny foil for the twins’ bonding.
There are countless films and television shows that deal with sibling love and sibling rivalry (and don’t even mention the ones about siblings who sleep together, accidentally or otherwise). The Skeleton Twins is just another little bittersweet indie dramedy, and it’s not a perfect film. But it is worth your time, both for the laughs, and for the way it reminds us that it’s with our brothers and sisters that we first learn the essential emotional truth that it’s possible to hate someone so much you wish them dead, and just a moment later, to love them so much it hurts.
The Skeleton Twins is in national release from 25 September.