Review: With Plenty of Humanity and Mystery, Three Identical Strangers May Be the Best Documentary of 2018

For a brief time in 1980, the three most talked about people in New York City (and the country) were Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland, and David Kellman. They were all nice 19-year-old Jewish boys who grew up near each other but never met until, on Shafran’s first day of community college, he was mistaken for Galland by everyone he met.

Three Identical Strangers

Image courtesy of Neon

It didn’t take long for one of Galland’s friends to connect the two, verifying the only possible truth: that they were twin brothers, separated as infants. Since both knew they’d been adopted, this didn’t seem that far outside of the realm of possibilities. Before long, local papers were running stories about the long-lost siblings, along with photos of the pair. This caught the attention of Kellman, also adopted, also 19, and also bearing a striking resemblance to the recently reunited brothers. And just like that, the twins became triplets, and the media coverage exploded.

The handsome lads and their story were built for talk shows. They would show up dressed identically, answer certain questions in unison, discuss the uncanny number of common traits and interests they had, and do just about anything that seemed amusing just because having three lookalikes doing it together made it funnier. They went to Studio 54 as a group, and even cameoed in the film Desperately Seeking Susan alongside a young Madonna.

It look some time for anyone to ask the question: “Why were these brothers separated?” and more importantly, “How did they end up being raised by such vastly different parents, whose only common trait was that they were all Jewish?” Now, director Tim Wardle tells the entire, stranger-than-fiction tale of the triplets—one in which the reunion is only the beginning of something far more unnerving and unethical.

Winner of a Special Jury Prize for Storytelling (Documentary) at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Three Identical Strangers hits theaters at a time when interest in serialized, true-crime podcasts and series is seemingly at an all-time high. But rather than expand this complex and layered mystery across several hours, director Wardle opts to boil every moment down to its most shocking elements while never skimping on the humanity of the three men caught in the middle of this captivating story. The filmmaker takes his time pulling back micro-layers of secrets, revealing just enough to keep audiences on a hook, thinking things couldn’t get any more devious, when in fact they can.

One especially heartbreaking sequence involves the brothers as young men seeking out and finding their mother, who it turns out was underage, desperate and not entirely mentally stable when she had them. She arranged to hand her children over to an elite Jewish adoption agency, Louise Wise Services, which specialized in matching babies born to Jewish mothers with Jewish families, which is exactly what happened to the subjects of this documentary. Using archival footage and re-creations, Wardle does an impressive job capturing the period and the frenzy that surrounded the times, but he also adds a layer of the sinister when discussing the adoption agency, and for good reason, including a wonderful moment when the adoptive parents confront the agency in their search for information and end up learning more than they’d bargained for.

Although some critics have openly discussed the film’s biggest and most explosive turns and reveals, it’s almost criminal to have those moments spoiled since audiences all along the festival circuit have reacted audibly to every new detail. The real hero of Three Identical Strangers is journalist Lawrence Wright, who never gave up investigating Louise Wise Services, and serves as the conduit for a great number of the movie’s most dramatic moments. By the conclusion, the birth mother’s mental health comes back to haunt them, mysterious figures in their lives growing up suddenly make sense (to them and their parents), and a deeper understanding of how throughly our search for knowledge can corrupt our morality becomes all too clear.

Some of the most interesting interviews come courtesy of the adoptive parents, not just for the information they provide, but also because their demeanor and self-admitted parenting styles were so radically different—a fact that comes into play as the true nature of this story opens up. It’s difficult to watch Three Identical Strangers and not feel for these kids who were denied growing up with their siblings, who they are clearly so close to in later years. But as more recent interviews reveal, even the tightest knit families can be divided and hurt each other. At one particularly difficult moment, the brothers realize that even though they look the same, they barely know each other.

In all likelihood, the movie will enrage you; it’s the type of emotional response that’s difficult to aim in a specific direction, making it all the more frustrating as a morality tale. The film ends with discussions of legal battles and documents that won’t be available for review until long after these men are dead, which sounds anticlimactic, when in fact, almost nothing about this work is. Three Identical Strangers is an early frontrunner for the best documentary of 2018.

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