Robert Shafran was a nervous, nineteen year-old freshman at his first day of college, overwhelmed by the warm and friendly welcome he was receiving from his peers. Guys were slapping him on the back, giving him high-fives; girls were running up and hugging him, kissing him. Everybody was happy to see him. Robert didn’t know any of them. Finally, in his dorm, somebody runs up and calls him Eddy. Who? Eddy Galland. Popular kid. Everybody loves him. Said he wasn’t coming back this year. But here he is; or, rather, here’s Robert Shafran. His identical twin. Separated at birth. They each have no idea that the other exists, let alone that they’re twins. Nor do they know there’s a third brother, David Kellman, somewhere out there.
Three Identical Strangers is the seemingly impossible story of Robert, Eddy and David, identical triplets put up for adoption in separate families and who finally discover this fact, and reconnect with each other, after nineteen long years. But this is only the first layer of a deeper and darker story, the tip of an unfathomable and perplexing iceberg that will threaten to unravel their happiness and tear their newfound bond apart.
I will refrain from saying too much more about the story. The film is structured around the point of view of the brothers, revealing each new twist as they themselves experienced events growing up. This has the dramatic benefit of aligning audience sympathy with them and strapping viewers in for the ensuing rollercoaster. But it also introduces a limitation that harms the film’s potential. This was a popular and well-documented story at the time; the brothers were treated like rock stars in New York City and were on television shows broadcast across the nation. If you are unfamiliar with this story, you might find the film propulsive and surprising. But the narrative approach also means the film cannot discuss various topics until they arise, chronologically, and reducing facets of this story to plot twists—particularly when many viewers will already know the outcome—strikes me as, not so much dishonest, but perhaps improper.
Director Tim Wardle’s approach to the material is too sensationalistic. There is tragedy at the heart of this story—something that is plainly evident from pretty much the beginning of the film—but the decision to deliberately tip-toe around certain issues does a disservice to the real human beings whose lives are being affected (the irony of my tip-toeing around “spoilers” in this review is not lost on me). This particularly impacts the portrayal of the father of one of the brothers; the film typically allows every subject to offer their viewpoints without judgment, but in this case Wardle is clearly fishing for an easy dramatic hook to make sense of a difficult situation and to align with his eventual conclusion, which struck me as dubious.
Also, by only addressing facets of the story as they arise, Wardle simply does not grant himself enough time in the film to properly tackle the serious and more philosophical issues. Suffice to say, the triplets were separated at birth as part of a larger psychoanalytic study. This is not addressed until later in the film, and Wardle attempts to pull everything together into a coherent whole by framing the story with the “nature versus nurture” debate in psychology. But this is little more than pop psychology: there is no debate, at least not anymore, and the film’s seeming favoritism for one side over the other betrays a lack of nuance, or a lack of understanding of modern psychology and scientific research. It also overlooks larger implications, like philosophical conversations about free will, and fails to address the elephant in the room that is psychoanalysis itself, and its turbulent reputation over the years. The film would have been richer had it allowed itself more time to work through the ramifications of the story in its totality.
Nevertheless, Three Identical Strangers is a gripping story. Wardle does make some good creative choices, and his research into the story itself is comprehensive and thorough, turning up some surprising revelations and giving him a massive source of video material to work with. The various interviews, dramatic recreations and source footage are all edited together extremely well, and the film has a strong sense of pacing. Unfortunately, the balance between sensationalism and incisiveness is skewed too much towards the sensational; the nature of this story is inherently shocking and surprising, so some of Wardle’s creative decisions are simply unnecessary, when not actually detrimental to a more insightful understanding of the issues. If you’re going into the film blind, you’re in for quite the journey. Just be sure to do some research yourself afterwards; the answers here are not as easy as Wardle tries to make them.