Tim Wardle’s fascinating documentary about separated identical triplets entertainingly re-fuels the nature vs. nurture debate.
From the “truth is stranger than fiction” department comes Three Identical Strangers, an investigative documentary from director Tim Wardle (One Killer Punch). What begins as a joyous rediscovery of family and friendship ends in disillusionment and a shocking betrayal of trust. To reveal the film’s secrets would be a crime, but it’s safe to say this story has more twists and turns than a second-rate soap opera.
Things start innocently enough as Bobby Shafran arrives for his first day at Sullivan Community College in 1980 and discovers, to his complete bewilderment, that everyone already knows him. Students approach the scared young man with smiles and well-wishes. A few girls even kiss him flush on the lips! How could he be the Big Man on Campus when he’s never even been there before?
Nearly 40 years removed from this surreal experience, it’s clear that Bobby still can’t believe the explanation for what happened. Sitting in an intimate room comprised of one chair, one light, and one drab background, he relates his story directly to camera. His intensity grows as the memories stir of that day — the day he learned about his identical twin brother, Eddy.
Eddy Galland had attended Sullivan the year before Bobby showed up but decided against returning. After one of Eddy’s college chums notices Bobby’s resemblance to his friend, the two embark upon a late night road trip. Within hours, Bobby and Eddy, two complete strangers, are standing face to face, predicting each other’s movements like some uncanny pantomime.
“The world faded away and it was just me and Eddy,” Bobby recalls wistfully.
The newfound brothers become instant celebrities in the local media as everyone rejoices in their unlikely good fortune. Imagine their shock when a man named David calls and introduces himself as their triplet. Yes, triplets separated at birth, each adopted out by the Louise Wise Adoption Agency in New York City. The three brothers lived for 18 years within 100 miles of each other. Even stranger, each of the boys had an adopted older sister, also placed by the Louise Wise Agency.
It’s the stuff of fairy tales, so Wardle keeps the first half of his film lighthearted. Optimism and excitement fuel these three young men as they embark upon a grand adventure… together. There are tales of debauchery when the boys rent a bachelor pad and “run amok in New York City.” You can see the mischievous gleam in Bobby and David’s eyes as they recount their time as global celebrities in the ’80s. The triplets even had a cameo in the quintessential New York film Desperately Seeking Susan.
The film presents the triplets as having been reality stars before the notion even existed. Archival footage documents their whirlwind tour of popular talk shows. Audiences delight in their mirrored mannerisms, and the triplets indulge the comparisons by dressing alike at all times. When Phil Donahue famously asks which brand of cigarette they smoke, the boys respond in unison, “Marlboros.”
Like any good investigative filmmaker, Wardle starts pealing back the layers of this unlikely reunion. Why were the boys separated? Why were the adoptive parents not informed the boys were triplets? The answers he finds are more sinister than anyone could imagine. When the picture starts falling into focus, it reinvigorates the classic debate about nature vs. nurture on a more fundamental and disturbing level than ever before.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Three Identical Strangers has a little bit of everything: love, loss, political intrigue, conspiracies, and mysteries that probably will never be solved. It fascinates and enrages in equal measure. Wardle controls the chaos by firmly establishing an emotional connection with the triplets before things start getting weird. No matter how far afield the search for answers leads him, he can always recalibrate the story around our three heroes.
Some of the emotional story beats get repetitive in the film’s final act, and Wardle comes close to drowning in informational overload. One can only wallow in righteous indignation for so long before it becomes tedious. Much of the film’s climax is just a rehash of what we’ve already heard from friends and family in the previous 90 minutes.
Still, the story of these three men, alike but completely different, is undeniably riveting. Intellectual, emotional, and moral concerns might cloud Wardle’s ultimate statement, but he never forgets the people impacted by his findings. At its heart, Three Identical Strangers is a simple fairy tale about three brothers re-connecting, but it’s the sensational details that make the story so irresistible.
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