THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS: Featured

Identical triplets turn out to be an incredibly rare occurrence. In order for it to happen, a monozygotic pregnancy — a pregnancy involving a single fertilized egg — must divide. This gives you identical twins. Then one of the two resulting cells bisects yet again. The predicted rate of occurrence in the United States is one in 10,000, but as of 2015 — the most recent year of available data — the actual rate was one in a million. I offer these statistics to put you in the right mindset to appreciate just how incredible the start of THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS really is.

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The Salad Days

That start occurs at a small New York University in 1980. There Bobby Shafran arrived at a warm welcome, one far too warm considering he was a brand new student there. In short order, the reason becomes clear. All of his fans think they are greeting someone else, an Eddy Galland who attended the year before. Eddy looked exactly like him, a friend revealed. Not just similar. Identical. Genetically identical as it turns out.

However, the story does not stop there. Once the assumed twins hit the front page of Newsday and the Post for being reunited after 19 years, others took notice. Amongst them were friends and family of David Kellman. They could not help but note the physical similarities between the reunited brothers and David. Sure enough, twins became triplets.

David, Eddy, and Bobby became media darlings of early 80s New York. Moving in together, appearing on talk shows, even ending up with cameos in DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN, they lived it up. For three guys just moving into their twenties, it was perfect. They lived a true “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll” lifestyle to paraphrase one of the brothers.

THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS: Movie Cameo
The brothers ogle Madonna in their big screen debut DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN. (Courtesy of Neon)

Darkness Comes

The brothers committed themselves fully to packing a lifetime of sibling bonding into as short a time as possible. Meanwhile, their parents felt far differently. How had this happened? Never once during the adoption process had any of the parents knew they were breaking up triplets. Worse yet, they could not stop their minds from spinning. If they didn’t know about their son’s absent siblings until now, what other revelations might await them?

Before long, Eddy, David, and Bobby began to see signs that their reunion was not a pure blessing. First, it began to derail their cooperatively owned restaurant called — what else? — Triplets. Eventually, Bobby bought himself out of it, needing space and a break.

Then things really began to tumble down. Mental health issues, an expose on the adoption agency, and further revelations of how they came to be separated began to bury the trio.

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The Technique Of THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS

Director Tim Wardle presents the film in a fairly typical documentary style. He combines subject interviews, archival still images, and reenactments to tell the story. Only two or three times does the camera move into the outside world to follow subjects. David and Bobby prove good storytellers who are self-effacing and quick with a laugh. When the information gets heavier, you can see how they feel it on themselves. They blunt their feelings, but their body language intriguingly reveals the pain and sadness.

The other talking heads — friends, family, journalists, psychological researchers — each have an interesting slice of the story to share. The personalities range from straightforward to quirky. A woman who met Errol Flynn in his prime but still refers to an aging research psychologist as “sexy” is a particular highlight. She is the secret weapon of the movie, encompassing both the cuteness of the reunion story and its dark underbelly with a kind of matter-of-factness that makes her role even more disconcerting.

THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS: As They Are Today
Bobby Shafran and David Kellman, earlier this year. (Courtesy of Sundance)

The Viewer’s Experience Of THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS

On the one hand, the style described above somewhat mimics the brothers’ experience immediately after reuniting. Even as their world expanded to include television, movies, clubs, celebrity and so on, their focus grew small and tight. They existed in the world, but they lived with each other and, for years, were each other’s best friends. It makes it easier for the viewer to understand both how exciting and insulating that experience could be.

On the other, that puts the entire weight of the movie’s success on the strength of the story. While the story remains strong, the film remains enthralling as well. Still, the film goes slack when the revelations are largely laid out. The closed nature of the film starts to feel more claustrophobic and repetitive than intimate.

As a result, the first hour or so moves an excellent clip. However, in the last half hour, the bottom sort of falls out of the film. After we learn of Eddy’s troubles and just how complex the adoption process was, it is — to borrow a phrase – “all over but the screaming.” Alas, the movie seems to recognize that as well.

Thus, the denouement loses its sense of immediacy and feels more like an afterthought.

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That’s a Wrap!

Despite the rather disappointing ending to the documentary, THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS deserves a look. The story is wild, saying that with all due respect. Each of the triplets is compelling characters on their own and their reunion is undeniably incredible. For those interested in psychology, it reveals a lot of what is presented without commentary in classes.

Speaking as a therapist, we hear a lot about the ways twins, triplets and so on mirror each other. Classes especially enjoy discussing how those similarities show up even when the siblings have been separated. However, this film reveals the dubious birthplace of many of those interesting anecdotes.

That said even if you have no interest in psychology, the revelations will provide more than enough interest value. Even though the ending means I cannot call it perfect, THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS is the kind of documentary that stays on the brain — and in the heart — long after the credits roll

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