With this year’s Sundance Film Festival getting underway in Colorado, I’m going to be spending the next two weeks looking at some films that caused a stir at previous Sundance Film Festivals. Today, I’m taking a look at the 2018 documentary, Three Identical Strangers.
It’s generally agreed that last year was a great year for documentaries. Between RBG, Would You Like To Be My Neighbor?, and Free Solo cleaning up at the box office, 2018 was the year that proved the audiences were willing to pay money to see reality captured on film. For me, there was no better documentary released last year than Three Identical Strangers.
Three Identical Strangers starts out like a Hallmark movie and then slowly turns into a horror movie. In New York, in the early 1980s, three young men who have previously never met discover that they’re triplets. At first, they’re a media sensation. Young, handsome, and charismatic, Edward Galland, David Kellman, and Robert Shafran become instantly celebrities. We watch archival footage of them appearing on a talk show and talking about how they discovered each other and everything that they have in common. They all smoke the same brand of cigarette. They all tend to have the same fashion sense and interests. All three of them smile while announcing that they’re single and they like women, which causes the audience to break into applause.
It was the 80s and we’re told that meant sex, drugs, and rock and roll. There are the three brothers at a club. There they are walking down the streets of New York, with three huge grins on their faces. There they are making a cameo appearance in a film with Madonna. Soon, they’re opening up a restaurant together, they’re getting married, and they’re starting families of their own….
And yet, as we watch all of this happy footage, we’re also watching present-day interviews with David Kellman and Robert Shafran. It’s impossible not to notice that, in the present, both of them speak in voices tinged with weariness. In the present day interviews, neither one of the brothers smile. Both of them have their guard up. To put it simply, neither one of them appears to be particularly happy.
It’s also impossible not to notice that Edward Galland, who is frequently described as having been the most charismatic of the triplets, is nowhere to be seen.
While the three triplets are becoming celebrities, the families that adopted them are wondering why they never knew about the other brothers. All three of the brothers were adopted through the same adoption agency and, interestingly, all three of them were put into families that had just recently adopted a daughter as well. One brother was given to an upper class family while another was adopted by a middle class family and finally, the third brother was given to a lower class family. It quickly becomes clear that this was not a coincidence.
Instead, the three brothers were a part of a social experiment, one designed to see how growing up at different economic levels would effect them. And, as quickly becomes clear, Edward, David, and Robert weren’t the only part of that experiment. Under the direction of psychologists Viola W. Bernard and Peter B. Neubauer, several sets of twins and triplets were separated for the exact same reason….
To say anything else about this haunting documentary would run the risk of spoiling it. It’s a thought-provoking film, as well as a rather disturbing one. Watching the film, it’s impossible not to mourn for the childhoods that the brothers lost. At the same time, you do find yourself wondering if all of the triplets’s subsequent problems can be blamed on the experiment or if they would have happened even if they all had been raised in the same family? The documentary leaves the answer to that question ambiguous. Much like the triplets, the audience is left wondering what could have been.
Oddly, Three Identical Strangers was not nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar. Well, that’s the Academy’s loss because this film was the best documentary of a very good year.