What would you do if you found out you had a long lost twin? Two generations have already lived out that fantasy through the “Parent Trap” film and remake. Yet, how does this look in real life? “Three Identical Strangers” unearths a popular human interest story from the 80s and follows it down a deep, dark rabbit hole. What starts out as charming goes to unexpected places that stick with you long after the credits roll.
In 1980, Robert Shafran enrolls in Sullivan County Community College in Upstate New York and is approached by many classmates almost immediately. He soon learns he looks just like one of their friends, Eddy Galland. Michael Domnitz drives Robert to meet Eddy and uncovers the two are brothers. Both boys were identical twins separated at birth and given up for adoption. The story of this chance meeting makes its way to the papers, where David Kellman realizes he’s also their long lost brother. The three identical triplets form an immediate bond and become news sensations. In many ways, this portion of the stories plays like a fantasy. This too good to be story brings these strangers status, happiness and popularity. The days of partying at Studio 54 and appearing in a Madonna movie represented crazy highs. Yet, like most of these stories, all good things must come to an end.
Director Tim Wardle handles a tricky sleight of hand as he eases us in to the more upsetting details behind the triplet’s separation. As the boys learn more about their birth mother and their adoption agency, facts come to light that alter their relationships. The boys and their families journey down a rabbit hole of information that only becomes worse and worse. Wardle builds the film in steady fashion. Information is parceled out very deliberately, as we go through these families worries, feelings and reactions.
The way Wardle plays with the archival footage through repetition is fascinating. We see the same puff pieces on the news of the boys, dressed alike, asserting their similarities. Yet, as we learn more and more about the shocking situation, these clips become more sinister. Finally, it just becomes sad. As we piece together more information, the things we’ve seen before become distorted even further in our minds. It’s a fascinating documentary that expertly peels back more and more information.
The documentary understands the humanity of its subjects. The film isn’t just a study on being adopted. The film explores mental health as well. It searches for the roots of mental illness but also entertains the hypothesis that certain things are unknowable. The three boys met when they were 19 years old. However, they spent 19 years living in very different conditions. One hails from a prominent doctor and well off family. Another comes from a middle class authoritarian household. The final one came from a more working class blue collar community. The dark twists of the story are intriguing. However, watching the similarities and differences in these three identical triplets is even more interesting.
As a child of adoption, the story hits very close to home for me. The highs of learning new, exciting things about your lineage are paired with the lows of uncovering facts you wish you never knew. These three brothers found in each other a part of their lives they felt was missing. However, as their story grew and they sought to learn more, they uncovered disturbing secrets that tested them beyond their wildest imaginations. There are so many powerful adoption narratives out there. What “Three Identical Strangers” gets right is they can be marred with joy and pain in equal measures. We feel more anger and melancholy as the story unfolds. However, this only works because the film makes us care about the bond between these three identical strangers.