The newly-released film by writer/director Craig Johnson The Skeleton Twins shows that the best love stories can be platonic. The film chronicles the relationship of long-estranged twin brother and sister Milo and Maggie, played by Saturday Night Live veterans Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, who reunite after Milo attempts to commit suicide.
“In its structure and rhythms, The Skeleton Twins often gestures at the conventions (and some of the clichés) of romantic comedy,” writes Slate movie critic Dana Stevens.
But Twins does more than present “a rom com that’s refreshingly free of rom,” to use the punchy expression of a Slate headline writer. It also challenges one of the most-entrenched beliefs in our culture: that we can choose who we are.
After all, if family is the ultimate collection of people we didn’t choose to live with, romantic relationships are the exact opposite: they’re about the people we did choose to commit to.
That’s what happened to Maggie. (Many spoilers ahead.) She is married to Lance (Luke Wilson), and on the surface, she’s got her life together, especially compared to Milo, a failed actor and a man who doesn’t appear to have any serious friends or lovers remaining in his life. She’s a dental assistant, she lives in a cozy home, and she and Lance are now trying for a baby. But when Maggie gets the call that Milo has just survived his suicide attempt, she’s holding a fistful of pills and flirting with suicide herself.
As the movie continues, we see more and more signs that while Maggie may have married a great guy (Wilson gives a terrific performance as a genuinely good guy with sincere, but never foolish, optimism), she isn’t happy—and she hasn’t been able to change herself. Instead of growing to share Lance’s optimism, Maggie regularly escapes, carrying on meaningless affairs on the side. And while she says she’s ready to be a mom, she’s also secretly popping birth control pills.
But when Milo comes to live with Maggie and Lance, he and Maggie soon fall back into their old understanding, despite a decade of estrangement, most memorably in a scene where Milo hilariously and exaggeratedly lips syncs “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Jefferson Starship to tease Maggie out of a moody rut she’s in. On the side, Lance watches. There’s no judgment—he smiles as it happens—but there’s also no understanding about why this helps Maggie.
Maggie married the man who was the type of person she wanted to become—cheerful, kind, and forward-looking—but she can’t seem to actually become that person herself, even after marrying him.
Perhaps, as The Skeleton Twins intriguingly posits, the most salvific relationships aren’t the ones we choose. Maybe they’re the ones that have been forced upon us.
Sure, we’re talking about salvation at a basic level here: every day of staying alive is a victory for depressed Maggie and Milo, still haunted by their dad’s suicide that occurred when they were fourteen. But it’s Maggie who is able to pull Milo out of his suicidal tendencies, and it’s Milo, ultimately, who saves Maggie from her own suicide attempt.
The Skeleton Twins also upends the traditional rom com ending. There’s no wedding at the end of the movie, no gloriously happy scenes, no Pinterest-worthy collage of joyous, perfect images. On the surface, Maggie’s life has actually gone in the opposite track, from picture-perfect with her husband and home at the beginning to so-not-a -Kodak-moment with her brother at the end, the two of them in his dismal apartment, herself now separated from her husband.
But then Milo pokes Maggie, and she smiles. You don’t know that’s it’s going to be okay: There’s nothing to suggest that Milo is going to start being a successful actor, that Maggie will be able to repair her marriage, that either of them will be able to definitively vanquish the sadness that perpetually tugs at them.
But they’ve got each other, and that’s something. In The Skeleton Twins, there is no suggestion that life’s a rich spouse away from perfection, a musical montage away from all of us becoming our best selves. But there is a wonderful affirmation that if we’re broken, it’s better to be broken with someone understanding at our side.