Considering the fact that most people on the planet have siblings, you'd think that the movie industry would do a better job of portraying sibling relationships. But as far as I can remember, only two films have come close to getting it right: 2000's You Can Count On Me (starring Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo) and the new dramedy starring Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, The Skeleton Twins. And the two films have a lot in common -- both have kids who grew up largely without parents; a brother who left home while the sister stayed in their upstate New York hometown; a sister in an adulterous relationship; clashes over setting boundaries between siblings; a title that references a childhood saying that is never said in the film; and both won screenwriting awards at the Sundance Film Festival.
But the most important similarities between The Skeleton Twins and You Can Count On Me is that both are excellent films that do a wonderful job capturing what makes sibling relationships so special. But by casting Wiig and Hader -- comedic actors with deep dramatic reserves who spent years together in the trenches of Saturday Night Live -- The Skeleton Twins is able to take the sibling bond in films to a new level with both humor and darkness that highlight the film's glowing heart. Watch my ReThink Review of The Skeleton Twins below (transcript following).
Most of us have siblings, but there have oddly been few movies that come close to accurately capturing what an actual sibling relationship is like. Instead of exploring the bonds between people who share parents, a childhood, and probably know each other better than anyone else could, we tend to get wacky family reunions, siblings fighting over love interests, and other nonsense most siblings never go through. But a film that gets it right way more than most is The Skeleton Twins, a terrific dramedy starring Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader as estranged twins who reconnect after a near tragedy. It's a film that rivals my favorite sibling movie ever, 2000's You Can Count On Me, a film The Skeleton Twins closely resembles without ever feeling derivative.
Wiig and Hader play Maggie and Milo Dean, twins who haven't spoken in ten years and whose lives have seemingly taken opposite paths. Milo, who's gay, is a struggling actor in LA dealing with depression and a recent breakup. Maggie, who still lives in their hometown in upstate New York, is a dental hygienist married to an unfailingly nice but dim guy (played by Luke Wilson) who's hoping they'll soon be parents. After a scary incident puts Milo in the hospital, Maggie offers to bring him to her place so he can rest and recuperate. As they revive their once-inseparable bond, Milo learns that Maggie's life is a lot less stable and boring than he thinks it is, including her affair with her scuba instructor (played by Boyd Holbrook). At the same time, Milo takes some ill-advised risks of his own by reconnecting with a former teacher and lover from high school (played by Ty Burrell).
You Can Count On Me was Mark Ruffalo's film debut, which launched his career and led to comparisons with a young Marlon Brando. Hader's performance as Milo is a similar sort of revelation that's perhaps even more impressive since Hader is already known as an enormously gifted comedic actor and impressionist. But as Milo, Hader shows he has the acting chops to put him in the rare class of actors who can excel at both comedic and dramatic roles, or blend them effortlessly as he does in The Skeleton Twins. It's a talent I noticed in the little-seen 2013 teen sex comedy the To-Do List, a performance that, in a better world, would've earned him a best supporting actor nomination.
Wiig, who's also known for over-the-top characters, shows as she did in Bridesmaids how effectively she can dial things down, get quiet and vulnerable, and do emotional scenes yet still be funny. Of course, The Skeleton Twins' secret weapon is the chemistry between Wiig and Hader forged over years in the trenches of Saturday Night Live. The result is a palpable feeling of connection and shared history between the two, along with a unique sense of humor that clearly and honestly delights them both. Burrell and particularly Wilson are also terrific in a film where everyone has flaws and there are no real bad guys.
The Skeleton Twins is very funny, but with touching and heartfelt scenes to go along with the film's themes of suicide, depression, disappointment, and infidelity. And there are other themes that most adults, particularly siblings, will relate to -- the fear that you peaked in high school, the disappointments of adulthood, wondering if you're the most screwed up of your siblings, the difficulties of being true to yourself, and the questions and chasms left behind by an absent parent.
The Skeleton Twins has an indie spirit, but it's also a fun crowd pleaser that's a real star turn for Bill Hader and proof that he's more than ready for leading man duties in comedies or dramas. It's also a great example of what can be done when films focus on what makes sibling relationships so special, from shared pasts, jokes, and shorthand to a sibling's unique ability to use that closeness to hurt you more than anyone else could. And what's more, The Skeleton Twins has a memorable lip-synching scene that will surely revive one of my favorite cheesy 80s songs, "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" by Jefferson Starship. So definitely don't miss The Skeleton Twins, and if you can, see it with a sibling.