Spoiler warning: It’s difficult to review this documentary without discussing several major revelations contained within it. If you want to remain unspoiled, please watch the film before reading on.
Imagine arriving at college and discovering there’s already someone on campus who looks exactly like you. Then, before that shock wears off, imagine finding out there’s someone else out there who also looks like you. That’s the remarkable story told in the documentary “Three Identical Strangers.”
Directed by Tim Wardle, the film follows the true story of Edward Galland, David Kellman and Robert Shafran, three identical triplets who were separated at birth in 1961, only to find each other 19 years later. At the time, the brothers were a media sensation, appearing in TV interviews, making film cameos and tearing up the New York party scene.
Wardle constructs the film around in-person interviews with the two surviving brothers (more on that later), archival footage and dramatic re-enactments. Even in middle age, the brothers have warm, magnetic personalities. They draw you in with their gravelly, gregarious tri-state accents, like a chatty guy you meet at a bar who tells you a story so incredible you’re not sure if he’s pulling your leg.
In this case, it’s all true, and it only gets more surreal as the film progresses. We come to learn that the adoption agency, unbeknown to the families, used the triplets as part of a clandestine psychological experiment to understand the effects of nature versus nurture by placing the infants in homes at different socioeconomic levels.
Slowly, the cheerfulness that initially animates the film gives way to a darker tale. The revelation comes as a shock to both the brothers and their families, who were incredulous that the agency would be complicit in such a duplicitous act. Wardle effectively captures how upsetting and destabilizing this was for the families, even if the film’s uneven pacing threatens to undercut it.
Even if this were a narrative film, I’d say the way this twist appeared from out of left field was unearned. Nothing leading up to it gave us any indication that this is where the film was headed. I get that Wardle was trying to surprise the audience, but it feels out of place in a documentary.
To make matters worse, the bombshell reveal of the experiment is quickly compounded by previously undisclosed information about the triplets’ history of mental illness and the revelation that brother Edward Galland, whose absence in the film’s present-day interviews was heretofore unmentioned, committed suicide in 1995. Taken together, it all feels cheap and sensationalistic.
Much of this might be a matter of personal taste. I’m not impressed by documentaries that employ twists and tricks to mislead or emotionally manipulate the audience. The story a documentary tells should be compelling enough to be told straight ahead without embellishment. It’s disappointing, then, that Wardle chose those twists and tricks when the story he had was already tragic, captivating, one-of-a-kind on its own.
“Three Identical Strangers” is now streaming on the CNN app, and available to rent on iTunes and Amazon.