Review: The Skeleton Twins (2014)

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Director: Craig Johnson
Screenwriters: Craig Johnson & Mark Heyman
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook & Joanna Gleason
Runtime: 93 min // Certificate: 15

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQJ6vb-Pzb8]

Depression is a very difficult thing to get “right” on the big screen, particularly when most modern portrayals of the disease are romanticised to such a loathsome extent that it either becomes “cool” or is dismissed as a “fad” by people who don’t know their arse from their elbow, never mind the complexities of a mental health condition as all-consuming and badly-treated as clinical depression. If The Skeleton Twins deserves any credit at all – and it does, for sure – then its honest, commonplace portrayal of two siblings wandering through life afflicted by the at once mundane but overwhelming problems that depression brings in its wake deserves our utmost respect, praise and celebration.

The Skeleton Twins, the sophomore effort of director and writer Craig Johnson (True Adolescents), tells the story of Milo (Hader; Superbad) and Maggie (Wiig; How to Train Your Dragon), twins who live on opposite coasts of the US. When Milo attempts suicide, Maggie invites him to stay with her and her husband Lance (Wilson; The Royal Tenenbaums) in New York for a while so that he can try to sort himself out and get better. What follows is a humorous but sincere portrayal of two siblings, both of whom care deeply for one another but are so damaged by their own personal experiences with depression and mental illness that they’re constantly in conflict with one another, that explores love, life and heartache in heartless, uncaring America.

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The strength of The Skeleton Twins rests almost exclusively on its honesty. This is a film treads a very fine line between light-heartedness and stark realism, and that blunt contrast results in an experience that doesn’t always hit the right notes but one that is admirable all the same. The chemistry between Hader and Wiig, both of whom traverse the tightrope between drama and comedy with natural deftness, lights up the screen like a firework, and they breathe genuine life and charm into a screenplay that might have felt forced in the hands of lesser performers. Their work together on Saturday Night Live, where both of them made their name, is a clear influence as it allows them to be spontaneous and to improvise with the material in a way that feels genuine rather than indulgent or smug, and their obvious off-screen friendship helps their on-screen love for each other to appear all the more heartfelt.

Where the film flounders somewhat is in its lack of focus. The narrative isn’t particularly well written or structured, and so whilst the dialogue is very strong, the actual story feels like it has been neglected. Don’t let this take away from the fact that The Skeleton Twins is a very accomplished piece of work with some stellar performances (even Luke Wilson pulls a knockout turn out of the bag!) but for me, the film might’ve worked better as a more intricate character study of two people just trying to survive the trials and tribulations of what most people consider “normal” life, rather than throwing overtly-complex external problems into the mix that threaten to subsume the more important stuff that’s going on beneath the surface.

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Nonetheless, The Skeleton Twins is a solid film and it has a hell of a lot going for it. Johnson’s direction is a little “twee” at times, again detracting from the gruesomeness and desperation bubbling away beneath each character’s façade, and the story does take a few too many liberties with the goodwill of its audience, but when things get intimate and hone in on the thoughts and feelings of Milo and Maggie, as opposed to the extraneous circumstances pushing on them from the outside, the film is a total delight of raw emotion and charming humour. Their personalities are rich, believable and relatable, and certain aspects of their lives will ring almost painfully true for anyone who has ever had to endure the malignity of depression and anxiety, which is a real testament to just how well broaches this difficult and almost laughably (in a tragic way) misunderstood condition.

Besides, it’s worth sitting through the entire thing just to see Hader and Wiig lip-syncing to one of the cheesiest pop songs of all time. If that’s not the greatest movie moment of 2014 so far, I don’t really know what is…

★★★

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