The backstory of “Three Identical Strangers” is such obvious movie fodder it’s a wonder it took so long for someone to make a movie about it: In 1980, 19-year-olds Robert Shafran and Edward Galland found each other at the same community college and realized they were twins separated at birth; the ensuing press coverage led them to hear from another 19-year-old, David Kellman, who looked exactly like them. The surprise triplets became fast friends and overnight media sensations. But how did they get pulled apart in the first place?
Director Tim Wardle’s competent documentary surveys this bizarre phenomenon through the experiences of the men as they entered young adulthood under the most unlikely of circumstances, while the mystery surrounding their infancy deepens as new information comes to light. However, “Three Identical Strangers” doesn’t open a new chapter in this decade-spanning case so much as it consolidates the various twists and turns, including the revelation that the adoption agency split up the brothers as part of a ’60s-era medical experiment. That outcome, which creeps into the story halfway through, transforms the movie from a weird-but-true tale of sibling bonding into a conspiratorial thriller.
It’s not the most seamless transition, but “Three Identical Strangers” does a solid job of outlining the brothers’ story for anyone who missed it before, while exploring the outrageous agenda behind their circumstances and why the famous case marked just one instance of many.
Wardle assembles an account of the circumstances with a flashy blend of reenactments and dramatic retellings from Shafran and Kellman, now middle-aged (Galland passed away in 1995 and only appears in archival footage). The brothers, who became brief media darlings and appeared on national television when their story first broke, have clearly mastered the art of recounting their story even as they seem a bit exhausted by it. Wardle rounds out their accounts by interviewing their parents, and assembles the narrative with a slick chronological approach that ensures plenty of surprise developments throughout as new characters enter the tale.
At first, “Three Identical Strangers” unfolds as a fascinating look at media hype, with the grinning young men finding themselves catapulting into the spotlight, answering questions about their similarities as they grin under the microscope of a zillion daytime talk shows. Their relationship initially has the quirky air of a sitcom, as the trio move into a New York City apartment together and open a successful upscale restaurant. Then they face the harsher ramifications of day-to-day life once the attention fades, as business clashes and a shared history of depression take the story into darker territory, setting the stage for revealing the truth behind their upbringing.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Wardle seems all too eager to abandon the giddy setup, which becomes a red herring. The movie zips through some of the outlandish developments of the brothers’ 15 minutes of fame (including bit parts in “Desperately Seeking Susan”) to place more focus on the circumstances behind their adoption. The brothers eventually learn that they had been part of the Neubauer-Bernard experiment, an ethically dubious nature-versus-nature study of twins that grew up in separate households conducted in secret with Louise Wise Services, the adoption agency where the brothers were found. They’re understandably enraged by the history, and Wardle finds other grown twins who share their frustration, as well as a strong desire to uncover the outcome of the long-dormant experiment and its relevance to their lives.
With a noir-like atmosphere that drops hints about murky backroom dealings, Wardle gradually allows the experiment to creep into the story before overtaking it, using an eerie score and the brothers’ flabbergasted reactions to develop a substantial foundation of awe. But the movie’s on shakier footing once it gets past that point, and the experiment takes center stage.
It’s here that we learn about a botched plan, with tidbits shared by former research assistants revealing the motives of a mad scientist with the capacity to ruin lives. The story of the Neubauer-Bernard research has been out in the open for years (it even spawned another documentary, 2017’s “The Twinning Reaction”). While “Three Identical Strangers” doesn’t bring a lot of new material to the table, the filmmaker has some fun playing up the more shocking developments, with a “Memento”-style regurgitation of previous events surrounding the brothers’ lives that take on new meaning once the truth gets out. Some of these manipulative storytelling tactics go too far, including one critical shared detail from the brothers’ childhood that holds so much significance that its absence from the earlier scenes feels like a cheat.
Nevertheless, “Three Identical Strangers” does a solid job laying out a story that’s both remarkable and repulsive in equal measures, a window into the peculiar bonding of twins that holds appeal for the same reasons that inspired the medical research in the first place. Its most jarring development comes with a final, disturbing pronouncement that suggests this next-level drama has only just begun.
“Three Identical Strangers” premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.