A bizarre and beguiling true story is told in The Silent Twins. If you didn't know in advance that it was true, you could easily assume it was the work of a screenwriter striving too hard for symbolism or great meaning. The events depicted aren't extraordinary in a Catch Me If You Can kind of way. They do, however, reflect the difficult-to-comprehend choice made by two women who experienced a lifetime of hardship as a result of their refusal to deviate from that choice.
We first meet June and Jennifer Gibbons as children, played by Leah Mondesir-Simmonds and Eva-Arianna Baxter. The twin sisters have, for their own peculiar reasons, decided not to speak to other people, only to each other. When alone, they engage in conversation, as well as imaginative play that allows them to escape from the dreary reality of their impoverished lives. Whenever somebody else enters their space, they abruptly clam up and stare at the floor. Obviously, this makes schooling difficult.
Following a short opening section, the film jumps ahead to their late-teen and early-adult years, where they awkwardly discover sex and drugs. June (Letitia Wright) and Jennifer (Tamara Lawrance) continue to live together, in the same room, maintaining their selective mutism. Eerily, it seems to have become ingrained. They've been at it for so long that they don't know how to stop. The women decide to write books, turning their tales into something they can use to financially support themselves. When June finds more success than Jennifer, the dynamic changes, leading to profound repercussions that are made worse by the communication issue.
There are two ways to approach this story. One is to go in a straightforward manner, the other to take a more impressionistic route. Director Agnieszka Smoczynska chooses the latter. Interspersed between scenes with the sisters are a few intentionally low-fi stop-motion animated sequences that lay out the women's fictional tales, one of which proves the basis for June Gibbons' The Pepsi-Cola Addict. The transitions aren't always smooth, and they interrupt the flow of the real-world plot. While the desire to replicate the fractured mentality of the characters is understandable, the more conventional approach might have worked better.
Even with that issue, The Silent Twins has plenty of pure drama to make for compelling viewing. The smartest touch was not trying to explain the siblings' refusal to speak. This allows us to experience them as those around them do - with a mixture of befuddlement and wonder. Psychoanalyzing them would have been the death of drama. Our compassion grows as both sisters face unpleasant consequences that could easily be avoided if they would just talk. But they don't, and so our hearts break for them in this self-created scenario both are too afraid to end. When you've carried on a ruse this long, it becomes all you know, so anything else seems terrifying.
Wright and Lawrance earn our complete empathy. It's impossible to underestimate how difficult their jobs are. If we become frustrated with June and Jennifer, or believe them to be insufferable, the whole movie falls apart. That never happens because the actresses so powerfully suggest a much-needed sense of comfort and protection the sisters gain from their choice. Imagining fantasy worlds and blocking out the real one is the only way they feel safe. That's sad, and the actresses make us empathize with the Gibbons' plight.
The Silent Twins' intermittent use of fantasy sequences may be a little too self-consciously artsy at times, yet it doesn't erase the film's soul. Leticia Wright and Tamara Lawrance keep this an emotional, fundamentally human tale about two very tormented young women who find solace in a choice few of us would make, only to discover it betrays them in the end.
out of four
The Silent Twins is rated R for drug use, some sexual content, nudity, language and disturbing material. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.