Release: Friday, June 29, 2018 (limited)
Directed by: Tim Wardle
Significant spoilers follow.
Documentarian Tim Wardle stunned the Sundance crowd earlier this year when he premiered Three Identical Strangers, the remarkable true story of a set of triplets separated at birth who by sheer chance were reunited at the age of 19. Call it one of life’s greatest plot twists. You might even call it a real-life fairytale. But do all fairytales have a happy ending?
It all began when a curly-haired Robert “Bobby” Shafran stepped foot back on campus at a community college in upstate New York in the fall of 1980. It was his sophomore year. A day that started as any other quickly turned surreal when seemingly everyone kept mistaking Bobby for some guy named Eddy (last name Galland), a former high school football star who was attending classes there the semester prior but had since transferred. It wasn’t until Bobby met his roommate that he would get an answer as to why girls he had never met before were walking right up to him and kissing him. The roommate, a Michael Domitz, knew Eddy had left the college and yet Bobby was so strikingly similar looking he had to ask a couple personal questions to potentially satisfy a theory. Were the two related in some way?
Turns out, both of Michael’s roommates shared the same birth day and year, and both were adopted — through the same adoption agency, no less. How many instances of coincidence does it take for someone to become convinced they aren’t coincidences? After an eerie phone call to someone whose voice was a perfect echo of his own, Robert took off for Long Island in the middle of the night. He had to meet this Eddy and immediately. Michael tagged along too. Four hours later, Robert found himself staring into a mirror — minus the actual mirror. The two had the same smile, the same bearpaw-like hands, the same curly hair. They spoke with the same cadence and laughed each other’s laugh. They instantly knew they were brothers and they acted like it. It was if those years, all that time spent in ignorance of each other’s existence, never were.
Their story quickly gained national attention and the pair toured the country, making appearances on all the major talk shows. Meanwhile, a 19-year-old David Kellman happened upon a picture of the two in a local paper and was struck by their resemblance not just to each other, but to himself. America was already falling in love with this saga about long-lost twins being found. When it was learned there was actually a third, the narrative shifted from heartwarming to truly unbelievable. In this film there are so many things you will try to deny even as the subjects themselves graciously invite you into their lives. And as they explain more, it paradoxically becomes harder to accept.
Three Identical Strangers is a pure joy to behold, a spectacle of families coming together and expanding under the most unlikely of circumstances. It really is like a fairytale, until it isn’t. That isn’t an indictment on the way Wardle handles the material. There is a reason he considers the triplets the “single greatest story” he has ever come across. The structure of the film is critical. The upswing in the first half has a power only matched by the crushing revelations of the second. In that way, there is this bipolar quality to the film’s emotional trajectory, going from one extreme end of the spectrum to the other.
The triplets, along with their respective foster parents (one an upper-class couple, another comfortably middle class and the third blue collar) had more questions than they had answers — the most pressing of which were directed at the adoption center that split them up at birth and irrevocably altered their lives.
The jaw-dropping revelations don’t end with the three brothers finally together and taking Manhattan by storm. In fact I’d argue this is where Wardle really goes to work. And where Three Identical Strangers goes from feel-good to “I feel sick.” As it moves into its unforgettable third act, interviews with curious journalists and scientists alike begin steering the narrative in a direction that is altogether surprising and deeply disturbing. What was before a celebration of life and love curdles into a desperate search for the truth and, ultimately, an infuriating ethics debate.
How were the three boys never told by their foster parents they were triplets, separated at birth? Did the parents themselves know? What about their birth mother? Why were they put up for adoption in the first place? I really want to answer some of those questions right here, right now. But you probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Believe this though: Three Identical Strangers is one of the most breathtaking documentaries you will ever watch. It exposes an existential crisis the likes of which you and I will never experience, while questioning the nobility of scientific experiments in which the lab rats look alarmingly like us.
Recommendation: Three Identical Strangers is the epitome of a film best experienced going in as cold as possible. Ideally, you’ve read my spoiler warning up top and skipped right down to this section. I guess it doesn’t matter when words don’t really do this story justice. It is just an insane true story and you have to check it out to draw your own conclusions. And please do so before Hollywood botches it by turning it into a narrative feature.
Running Time: 96 mins.
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