Whenever possible, I try to limit my exposure to information about a film before I actually screen it, in the hopes of preserving the integrity of my critical evaluation. While I maintain that this is a prudent practice, it’s not without its drawbacks when it comes to selecting assignments. It also occasionally leaves me thoroughly unprepared for what I’m about to see — as was certainly the case with Three Identical Strangers, an uneven but deeply unsettling documentary that sets itself up as a quirky human interest puff piece before taking a hard left turn into some profoundly dark territory. Consider this a warning, albeit one of which I did not adequately avail myself.
Those wishing to go into documentarian Tim Wardle’s film blind should read no further, as some minor spoilers are necessary in order to discuss the premise at all. Wardle’s subject would be too surreal to believe were it not true, though at the outset, it might seem reasonable enough. In the early 1980s, Robert Shafran matriculated to a small community college in upstate New York only to find that he apparently had a doppelgänger who had previously attended the same school. On tracking down his double, Eddy Galland, the two young men discover that they were identical twins separated at birth and adopted by different families 19 years earlier. The wrinkle is that a third teen, David Kellman, saw newspaper coverage of the duo and recognized an undeniable resemblance — they were triplets, not twins.
Triplets separated at birth — cute, right? The popular media of the day certainly thought so. But that’s just the first act of Three Identical Strangers. A deeply guarded secret held by the adoption agency responsible for placing the brothers in their respective homes is too salacious a surprise to be ruined here, but it should suffice to say that it’s utterly mind-boggling. From there, the film develops into a story that follows an almost unfathomably cruel path, and as several of the subjects reiterate throughout the film, the details would be entirely unbelievable were they not true.
The tragic events that would follow the revelation of the triplets’ true history are occasionally played for shock value, much to the detriment of the film itself. One instance in which a pertinent detail of the brothers’ backstory, uncovered by the filmmaker in an interview and revealed to the subjects on camera, is such a flagrant violation of documentary ethics that it’s almost unforgivable in the context of the level of manipulation these men have already endured at the hands of others. In conjunction with some highly amateurish stylistic choices on Wardle’s part, Three Identical Strangers feels very much like a riveting subject in need of a more proficient filmmaker.
At one point in the doc, journalist Lawrence Wright — who uncovered the story while working on a piece for The New Yorker — states that he never really got to the bottom of the events surrounding the adoption of Shafran, Galland and Kellman. Neither does Three Identical Strangers, a film that seems to quit just when the pieces are coming together. As a piece of documentary filmmaking, it’s fundamentally flawed. But the story is so staggeringly strange and bears such incredible implications, that it demands to be seen despite its shortcomings.