An eerie sense of discomfort and anxiety begins to arise roughly halfway through the remarkable, entertaining, gripping, and disturbing new documentary ‘Three Identical Strangers.’ Once it starts, it only builds, continuing till long after the credits roll. Directed by Tim Wardle (“One Killer Punch”), this surprise hit (from CNN Films and England’s Channel 4) related the true story of three New Yorkers – Eddie Galland, David Kellman, and Bobby Shafran, all adopted at six months old – who discovered in 1980, at the age of 19, that they were identical triplets separated at birth.
38 years ago, the story was big news for several months. I myself have vague memories of the lost-and-found triplets, being interviewed on some afternoon television show. It was, at the time, a heartwarming story, and I admit I bought a ticket for ‘Three Identical Strangers’ with the expectation of seeing something similar, a non-fiction version of a Disney comedy, something like ‘The Parent Trap’ plus one. But given the weird, jarring facts that are ultimately presented in the film, as constructed by Wardle (with perhaps a bit too much conspicuous withholding of those facts as that story unfolds), what I ended up seeing was a bit more akin to ‘The Boys From Brazil.’
Only this one really happened.
A surprise box office performer – possibly given a ticket-selling boost by Moviepass holders now willing to take a chance on a small indie documentary – ‘The Identical Strangers’ is a lot more than just some People Magazine page-turner translated to the big screen. Once the exuberantly reported details of the brothers’ off-the-wall reunion has unspooled, after the triplets have become media darlings, the movie begins to dig into the obvious questions around the three boys’ adoptions in 1981.
Chiefly, why were the triplets broken up to being with? And why weren’t any of the adopting parents informed that their sons were exact copies of two other boys? Some of these questions appear to be given answers, during a midway sequence in which the adoptive parents describe a heated meeting at the adoption agency, once the triplets accidentally discover each other. In short, the parents are told (by agency board members) that since no one would have adopted three babies, all at once, in New York of 196, it was thought best to adopt the boys individually.
If wasn’t a great answer, at least it was an answer.
But then, one of the attending fathers witnesses something disconcerting when he goes back for his umbrella, an odd interaction between the board members suggests that there was, in fact, much more to the story than was admitted to the parents at that point.
All of this is cleverly presented through a smooth combination of staged reenactments, news clips, archival footage, and onscreen interviews, including separate conversations with two of the three triplets, David and Bobby, which sets up yet another lingering question. Where’s Eddy?
And then, suddenly, the film takes a turn, introducing a new voice, a new perspective, and a much darker tone.
Ultimately, ‘Three Identical Strangers’ is an exploration of the age-old human desire to understand our selves in terms of nature and nurture. What part of us comes from the biological markers of genetics and familial coding, and how much comes from the ways we are raised, the abundance or lack of love we experienced, the levels of affluence or poverty we are faced with while maturing?
Those are questions that drive the story of the New York triplets, and – in more ways that one – contribute to this remarkable film’s sad and shattering final moments.
It’s been recently announced that ‘Three Identical Strangers’ will soon be adapted into a narrative film, with actors playing out the brothers’ unbelievable true story. Despite the documentary’s obvious cinematic manipulations, it’s hard to imagine a traditional film could be half as effective as this unsettling, unshakeable work of art.