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Sundance Film Review: ‘The Skeleton Twins’

Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig give knockout performances as estranged siblings in Craig Johnson's character-driven crowdpleaser.

Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Joanna Gleason, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Adriane Lenox

Sibling bonds are fertile territory for indie dramedies, but “The Skeleton Twins” distinguishes itself from the pack with a pair of knockout performances from “Saturday Night Live” veterans Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. This character-driven crowdpleaser also reps a step toward the mainstream for sophomore helmer Craig Johnson (whose little-seen mumblecore debut, “True Adolescents,” toplined Mark Duplass, an exec producer here). Prime acquisition bait should have no trouble scoring in specialty release, with a shot at crossover success thanks to the winning work of its stars.

The lead players’ “SNL” baggage actually works in their favor, both in the effortless way they establish a shared history for estranged twins Milo (Hader) and Maggie (Wiig), and in the pic’s savvy use of comedy as a coping mechanism for hard times. The duo’s chemistry was previously showcased in the Sundance-premiered “Adventureland,” but the biggest surprise for audiences expecting plenty of laughs will be just how effectively both thesps handle the weightier dramatic material in the screenplay co-written by college pals Johnson and Mark Heyman (“Black Swan”).

The dramatic stakes are quickly established in an opening sequence that sees both characters contemplating suicide. Aspiring actor Milo lives in Los Angeles and is fresh out of a failed relationship, while Maggie is a New York dental hygenist in a seemingly happy marriage to gregarious guy’s-guy Lance (Luke Wilson). Of the two, Milo is the one who goes through with it, slitting his wrists in a bathtub. It’s a phone call informing her that her brother is in the hospital that pulls Maggie back from the brink. She rushes to his side and, after some initial awkwardness, the ice is broken by a memorable gag involving “Marley and Me,” effectively demonstrating their shared sense of humor.

Milo reluctantly agrees to accompany Maggie back to New York and soon finds himself readjusting to life in his hometown, while simultaneously becoming something of a third wheel in his sister’s troubled relationship. Pic takes its time parsing the complicated history between the siblings, and exactly why they haven’t spoken in 10 years, but clues arrive in the form of their self-involved New Age mother (Joanna Gleason, ideally cast in an unfortunately underexplored role) and an older man (Ty Burrell) from Milo’s past with whom he appears to have a romantic connection.

We’re long past the point of straight actors being hailed as “brave” for playing gay roles, and Hader’s beautifully modulated performance speaks to that 21st-century sensibility. Milo’s sexuality is just another part of who he is, and he’s able to joke about being a “tragic gay cliche” and don drag on Halloween without even a hint of camp or lazy stereotyping. Not even the memory of Hader’s lovably drugged-out club kid Stefon from “SNL” can distract from what he accomplishes here, including a piercing speech about flawed notions of “peaking” in high school.

The pic’s giddy high, which for many may be worth the price of admission all by itself, is Milo’s spontaneous lip-sync to Starship’s gloriously cheesy ’80s anthem “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” (previously immortalized onscreen as the love theme to 1987’s “Mannequin”). Together with a late-night dental cleaning turned riff session in Wiig’s office, “The Skeleton Twins” captures the way siblings develop their own unique comedic shorthands in a way few films ever have. Johnson also nails the flip side of that tight link: They’re capable of hurting each other like no one else can.

If Hader has the benefit of slightly more screen time, Wiig is no less impressive as a woman quietly falling completely apart. Having finally found a nice guy, Maggie is utterly at a loss as to how to proceed and can’t help but sabotage her chance at a “normal” life. There has always been a touch of sadness to Wiig’s comic characters, and she nails Maggie’s hushed desperation and more explosive acts of frustration.

The supporting cast is all aces. Wilson overcomes his overly broad introductory scenes to render a sympathetic portrait of a happy-go-lucky guy whose charmed life gives him a completely different perspective from that of his wife and brother-in-law. Burrell — also deftly playing against his “Modern Family” persona — has an even bigger challenge locating the soul lurking within a borderline-sleazeball character, but pulls it off in a series of sensitively drawn scenes opposite Hader. Boyd Holbrook rounds out the key players as an Aussie scuba instructor drawn to Maggie’s offbeat vibe.

Tech credits are pro, including Nathan Larson’s sparingly but effectively used score, which is augmented by several great song choices like John Grant’s “Outer Space” and Donnie & Joe Emerson’s “Don’t Fight.” Jennifer Lee’s precise cutting ensures every joke lands, while Reed Morano’s lensing is highlighted by evocative underwater work (captured by Morano herself) in several pivotal scenes.

Sundance Film Review: 'The Skeleton Twins'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 18, 2014. Running time: 91 MIN.

Production: A Venture Forth, Duplass Brothers production. Produced by Stephanie Langhoff, Jennifer Lee, Jacob Pechenik. Executive producers, Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass, Jared Ian Goldman.

Crew: Directed by Craig Johnson. Screenplay, Johnson, Mark Heyman. Camera (color, HD), Reed Morano; editor, Jennifer Lee; music, Nathan Larson; music supervisor, Randall Poster, Meghan Currier; production designer, Ola Maslik; set decorator, Lauren DeTitta; costume designer, Kaela Wohl; sound, Anton Gold; supervising sound editor, re-recording mixer, Ian Stynes; stunt coordinator, Chris Barnes; associate producer, Roxie Rodriguez; assistant director, Joseph Ciccarella; casting, Avy Kaufman.

With: Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Joanna Gleason, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Adriane Lenox

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