THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS ½
PG-13, 96 mins.
2018, PG-13, 96 mins.
A documentary directed by Tim Wardle
I want you all to tap into the recesses of your imaginations to help me set up the new documentary THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS.
Imagine, if you would, that you're a bright and eager minded teenager about to attend your very first day of college. As a brand new student for the academic year you enter into post-secondary studies knowing...that you know nobody at this school. When you arrive on campus you can't help but notice that something just seems...off.
Seemingly everyone around you treats you like they've known you for years.
Some smile and wave at you, whereas some even run up, hug, and kiss
you. Then, to make matters
even more bizarre, people start calling you "Eddie," even though
that's not your name. Finally, after one too many students call you by your
incorrect name one of them realizes that something's fishy. They ask you for your birthday and whether or not you've been
adopted. After some deductive
reasoning, this one student takes you on an overnight pilgrimage to an
off-campus home, and upon arrival you are greeted at the door...by your
exact identical double.
And at this
point you're emotionally rattled with the startling realization that you
have a twin brother that was separated from you at birth.
Now, this is
precisely how Tim Wardle's endlessly intoxicating, frequently mind
blowing, and sometimes shocking documentary THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS
opens. We meet a rather
unassuming and ordinary looking 56-year-old Robert Shafran, who recounts
in very specific detail attending his first day of college in 1980, experiencing what I just described, and at the end of the day he
discovered that he had a twin brother in Eddy Galland that was attending
the very same school. Now,
that kind of life altering realization would be stupendous enough for any
person, but that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in terms of
startling revelations contained within THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS.
Of course, and because of the once in a million odds set of
circumstances, the story of Eddy and Robert's chance meeting started
making news headlines across the country, including coverage for Newsweek
It's at this
point in this separation yarn when things go from incredible to full on
monumentally fluke occurrence, one reader from across the U.S. read one of
these articles about Robert and Eddy and gasped when viewing the
accompanying image of the pair, both of whom looked exactly like her own
son, David Kellman. And just
when you thought this tale couldn't get more astonishing, it's revealed
that - wait for it - David was the long lost and separated twin brother to
Robert and Eddy, making them all separated at birth...and identical triplets.
All three of these young men were born to a troubled and single Jewish mother in 1961, and when she gave up her three babies to the Louise Wise Adoption Agency they were systematically separated and given to three different sets of parents, one upper class, one middle class, and the remaining lower class. Despite being raised by different people in different parts of the country and under different economic conditions, all three brothers had remarkably similar traits, mannerisms, and tastes. They all liked the same types of clothes, smoked the same cigarettes, drank the same booze, and all had the same taste in women. They become overnight media sensations, appearing on the Phil Donahue Show and the Today Show, where interviewers propped them up for the fascinating case studies that they were. Their story, it initially appeared, seemed to wholly support the notion that nature and not nurture was the predominant driven force in childhood development. Eventually, the trio were inseparable, ended up moving in together in an apartment in Manhattan, and partied as hard as media celebs and brothers could in the 1980s. They even managed to open up their own posh restaurant in the city and had a cameo in the Madonna movie DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN.
Life could have not have been any better for these young men...that is until it all came crashing down.
All of this
makes THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS sound like a genuinely enthralling, but
light hearted and fluffy curiosity piece, and in its opening stages it
most certainly is, as we are given obligatory archival footage of these
three grinning from ear to ear siblings making the media rounds and
enjoying their 15 minutes of fame. Yet,
what makes Wardle's documentary so positively gripping is how it takes a
massive 180 degree turn away from being a sunny fact based human interest
story and down some decidedly dark, twisted, and loathsomely tragic paths
that will have many in the audience wanting to throw something at the
screen in moral outrage and emotional disgust.
The doc begins to take multiple twists when it delves into
the men's respective parents having a multitude of questions for the
Louise Wise Adoption Agency, who were primarily responsible for splitting
them up after birth. Their
instant collective response to them was their perceived belief that no one
would want to adopt all three at the same time.
The parents begrudgingly accepted such arguments, but then THREE
IDENTICAL STRANGERS oddly segues to a seemingly unrelated subject in Austin,
Texas-residing investigative journalist Lawrence Wright, who was penning a
story about twins for The New Yorker.
In his research he came across the story of the triplets and,
through them, an article from an obscure scientific journal about twin
studies. And it's at this
vantage point when the once cheerful documentary takes some very, very
nightmarish turns for the worse, one that dabbles into far reaching medical
conspiracies, active cover-ups, and the complete deconstruction of the triplets' upbringings apart.
There's so much
that I want to relay about THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS, but that would
amount to massive spoilers. But, how could relaying the facts around established history,
you may ask, constitute spoilers? Trust
me when I say that Wardle's doc is best seen by everyone with absolute
zero prior knowledge of the backstories of Robert, Eddy, and David.
If anything, Wardle's approach effortlessly blends strong
investigative reporting alongside powerful and dramatic storytelling, and
the manner that he meticulously constructs the doc's narrative thrust by
given us details here and there, only to then leave out chunks of
information out allows for viewers to stay attuned and beg to ask more
questions about the boys, their family, and what in the hell happened to
them. And like many of the
best docs that I've seen, THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS is at its best when it
amply displays the old truism that truth is stranger than fiction. I'm quite sure that if any Hollywood screenwriter concocted a
script that precisely matched what happened to the triplets it would be
deemed unfilmable rubbish. Well...
Very few films -
documentary or not - contain as many multiple plot twists as THREE
IDENTICAL STRANGERS, which starts as a giddy feel good expose of lost
brothers that find one another through impossible circumstances and pure
dumb luck and then takes anger inducing and haunting detours about the
erosion of scientific and medical ethics and how that uniquely ties into
ending the ageless nature versus nurture debate, leaving innocent children
and their lives systematically ruined in the process.
That's about all I should say on that, other than to say that the
doc's whiplashing effect on viewers with its many and frequent discoveries
will undoubtedly enrage and sadden in equal measure.
There are a few
things that, I think, hold THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS back from achieving
true greatness. The first
would be that it prematurely tips off some of its story's inherent tragedy
with its execution (like, for instance, how its abundantly apparent early
on that only two of the three brothers are interview subjects in the
present day). I also would
have liked more of an examination of what the brothers are doing now and
how they're coping with their dreary past (Wardle is light of details in
this regard). The ending of
the doc also hints at a potential darker future for these men that could
lead to protracted legal battles that may never fully afford them the
answers they've been seeking for the better part of their lives as to what
really happened to them. Yet,
THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS is simultaneously hypnotizing and heartbreaking
and never once uses its subjects for the purposes of cheap and
sensationalistic exploitation. Despite
the brothers' story becoming the stuff of horrific science fiction, you
gain an immediate sense that they were all flawed and relatable human
beings that, in the end, got a real raw deal in life.
I've rarely seen a film that began so rosy and became as undeniably
disturbing as this one. And that's what makes it an unforgettable doc.