Three Identical Strangers and their strange, entwined lives

A Documentary
Directed by Tim Wardle

As I write this review (in April), Three Identical Strangers is the best new documentary I’ve yet seen this year.

In 1980, 19-year-old Robert Shafran, Edward Galland, and David Kellman met each other and discovered they were identical triplets, separated at birth. Even their adopted parents didn’t know that their sons had genetically-perfect copies walking around out there. That discovery changed their lives and uncovered a sinister experiment.

Filmmaker Tim Wardle created an unusual, deeply empathetic documentary about the triplets. He uses their story to examine our media-saturated culture, before heading into darker territory.

Three Identical Strangers starts as a fun, upbeat movie about three brothers who meet each other, bond, and discover just how many things they have in common. Once discovered by the media, they’re the toast of the town. They’re on all the talk shows, which make a big deal about everything they had in common that didn’t seem connected to genetics; for instance, they all smoked Marlboros. They even had a cameo in the movie Desperately Seeking Susan. Eventually they banded together and created a popular New York restaurant and club called Triplets.

While still running the club, they settled down and got married. A fun montage shows their wives, separately, explaining how each got the good one. One even states that hers is the most handsome, which is odd since they looked exactly alike (of course, age eventually changed that).

But then things get darker. The brothers discovered that they were guinea pigs since birth. The orphanage that split them up took part in a secret study on identical twins (and, of course, this set of identical triplets). They sent the babies off to different parents, not telling them about this special situation. Then, under false circumstances, researchers studied the children and their parents.

With three generically-identical people, growing up in very different economic classes and with diverse parenting styles, those researchers must have hit a jackpot with the triplets. The study, which intended to solve the nature/nuture question, was never published and the people who performed it did everything they could to hide it.

It’s shocking how much these researchers secretly controlled young lives. It initially seemed coincidental that all three had also-adopted, older sisters. But that, too, was the orphanage’s plan.

Separating twins and triplets at birth can cause major emotional trauma, so it’s not surprising that all three had serious problems in adolescence. The problems did not go away entirely with adulthood.

Wardle breaks some documentary rules in making Three Identical Strangers, and that’s all for the better. For instance, he uses actors, with no faces shown, to recreate the triplets’ discovery of each other. He interviews two people separately, then later puts them on camera together. He manages the tone switch from light-hearted fun to paranoia smoothly.

Three Identical Strangers is an entertaining movie, but also a frightening true story.