A film review by Craig J. Koban August 16, 2018

THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS jjj
 

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.  

Close your eyes....

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.

Pagin' Rod Serling.

 

 

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 magazine.

It's at this point in this separation yarn when things go from incredible to full on mind-blowing.

By some 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.

Holy.  Shit.

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.

Phew.

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. 

  H O M E