The Tragic True Story of June & Jennifer Gibbons
The Silent Twins tells the sad true story of June and Jennifer Gibbons. The girls and their Caribbean parents were the only black family in their Welsh neighborhood. Bullied at school and ostracized from a young age, they retreated into their own world and ceased communicating with other people. They developed an elaborate fantasy life to cope with their surroundings. The girls’ behavior alarmed British school officials who deemed them mentally ill and attempted separation. Their rebellious teenage years led to incarceration in a cruel mental hospital. The film illustrates a unique connection with mixed results. We see their strange bond and rich imagination, but get few insights into what drove their continued silence.
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In early seventies Wales, young June (Leah Mondesir-Simmonds) and Jennifer (Eva-Arianna Baxter) lock themselves in their bedroom all day. They refuse to speak to their parents (Nadine Marshall, Treva Etienne) or siblings. At dinner, they eat sparingly and mirror each other’s actions. Their quiet countenance changes dramatically once alone. The girls talk in bizarre cryptophasia and write in journals. They create a fantasy world of people, parrots, and dogs. At school, exasperated teachers try different tactics to get them to speak. The girls are split up and sent to different institutions. They continuously try to harm themselves and escape. Authorities decide to keep them together back at home.
In 1981, a teenaged June (Letitia Wright) and Jennifer (Tamara Lawrance) start exhibiting adolescent proclivities. They develop a crush on the local bad boy, Wayne Kennedy (Jack Bandeira). The girls break into his family’s house to steal his clothes. They’re caught by Wayne’s parents but finally get to meet him. Wayne introduces them to sex and huffing chemicals. They start to argue for his affections. Jennifer also becomes jealous of June’s writing ability. Drug use and hallucinations lead to dangerous criminal vandalism. A judge hits them with a severe penalty. They are permanently incarcerated at Broadmoor, a soul-crushing psychiatric hospital. The girls languish in despair until a journalist (Jodhi May) takes interest in their case.
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The Silent Twins Ebbs and Flows
The Silent Twins ebbs and flows as the girls age. The first act in their youth does an able job of establishing their situation. No one knows how to deal with them. Their parents and teachers adopt a hands-off approach when nothing else works. This allows the girls to continue down a destructive path. They are a mystery to relatives when Wayne’s influence takes hold. These scenes are disturbing. The girls delight in fornication and unhinged mischief. But they are also naive and sexually exploited.
The narrative takes a downward turn when the girls are imprisoned. Their spiraling health and awful treatment doesn’t elicit the expected reaction. Suffering and desperation oddly fails to resonate. The reporter’s introduction doesn’t result in any clarity. It’s like looking at mental patients through an observation glass. They’re disturbed and need help, but it isn’t clear what that should be. The film needed to take a stand or offer an opinion on the right course of treatment. It strays into stale biopic territory at the most galvanizing moments.
Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska (The Lure, Fugue) does hit a high point with the fantasy sequences. The film uses stop-motion animation to illustrate June and Jennifer’s writings. You get the best understanding of how they were utterly disassociated with reality. The animation becomes more twisted as they struggle to deal with prison.
The Silent Twins is an uneven experience but worth watching. Their story is both distressing and confusing. The sisters had a light that wasn’t understood or handled correctly. Systemic failures treated them harshly when compassion and a creative outlet was needed. Mental problems require a sophisticated approach. Drugging and locking people up in horrible places isn’t an answer.
The Silent Twins is a production of Kindred Spirit, Madants, 30WEST, and 42. It will have a theatrical release on September 16th from Focus Features.