Every family has its secrets, and the Dean twins, Maggie and Milo, are examples of what happens when the skeletons in the closet gradually start rattling. This is the premise of the movie “The Skeleton Twins.”
The two, played by Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, are closely bonded by their father’s instruction to always look out for each other. The bond becomes life-sustaining when he commits suicide while they’re in their teens. (They never actually say it happened, but the film often trails off when talking about him.)
Although there are flashback scenes, their father is always shown with skeleton mask — like the kind worn during the Mexican Day of the Dead festival — so the audience never sees his face. He remains a specter in the lives of his children. It seems the topic of their father’s death was brushed aside and they didn’t have the chance to grieve.
Their mother also disappears from their lives into her own journey, becoming a stereotype of a New Age spiritual type who uses jargon, rather than true emotional expression, on the rare occasions she sees her children.
The siblings have been estranged for 10 years when the film begins. It’s a shared experience of simultaneous cross-country suicide attempts — Maggie is in upstate New York and Milo is in Los Angeles — that reunites them.
In the intervening decade, Maggie meets and marries a seemingly perfect husband, Lance, who wants to have a baby with her, but her addiction to sex with other men gets the better of her. Milo’s failure to succeed in his acting career — or have healthy relationships himself as a gay man — contributes to his alcohol abuse. Very few scenes show either sibling without a bottle or glass nearby.
The other “skeleton” is Rich (played by Ty Burnell), Milo’s high school English teacher and the reason Maggie and Milo parted ways in the first place. When Milo returns to his home town to stay with Maggie and Lance and recuperate, he and Rich meet again, and the sexual relationship they had when Milo was in high school resumes.
Secrets are revealed that re-cement the bond between the twins. Love and humor help keep them in each other’s lives when ill-chosen words and sabotaging actions threaten to cut them apart for good.
Recurring images of water, fish, plastic toy skeletons, Halloween costumes and masks encourage the viewer to question what lies behind the facades we all present. This film invites us to examine our own skeletons in the closet — and whom we can feel safe exposing them to.