Review: Three Identical Strangers (2018)


It’s hard for a documentary to surprise, especially if it follows events that played out in public just 20 years ago. The rare documentary that does surprise usually does so because the filmmaker stumbles onto something shocking in the midst of documenting something else, as was the case with last year’s riveting Oscar winner, Icarus. But Three Identical Strangers, Tim Wardle’s exceptional new documentary about three men who discovered they were identical triplets when they were 19, doesn’t have any of Icarus’s investigative mindset and doesn’t discover new facts in the midst of its creation. Instead of relying on the shock of discovery made midway through production, it uses cunning editing and structure to surprise viewers with the stunning escalation of its real-life story. The result is a perceptive exploration of nature and nurture that demonstrates how often reality outstrips even the most fanciful fiction.

Three Identical Strangers begins with subject Bobby Shafran recounting his first day at college in upstate New York, when everyone on campus recognizes him and calls him David Kellman. Bobby learns that David attended the college the year before and happens to look just like him and even shares the same birthday. Soon enough, Bobby is racing to David’s home and knocks on the door to discover an identical copy of himself answering. We learn that they are twins, separated at birth and adopted by different families, and their remarkable story becomes a major news item, which brings to light a third identical brother, Eddy Galland. The story balloons into a media sensation and the lives of these three brothers are changed forever.

This shocking discovery occurs within the first 20 minutes of the film. Wardle retells the story through interviews, archival footage, and recreations of the events that are shot in a saturated, 16mm-style that brings the past to vibrant life. The story races forward breathlessly, the viewer carried along by the momentum of what’s happening on screen, even though what the film is depicting took place almost 40 years ago. Wardle partially supplies this momentum through the recreations, which let us know that these events aren’t just a story from the past for Bobby, Eddy, and David: they’re the definitive story of their lives, which they’re still living through the implications of. And those implications are staggering.

Using interviews with the brothers as his structural frame, Wardle gradually expands the story, revealing layer upon layer of this remarkable coincidence that was left unexamined during the initial media circus. The revelations are startling and bring up difficult questions of nature, nurture, and the psychological impact of fame and family. After each new revelation, Wardle cunningly goes back to familiar archival footage of the brothers during the initial news story, letting us watch their TV appearances in light of the new information we receive. This repetitive editing reveals the power of context and the shortcomings of how we examine exceptional stories in the media, often unable to look beyond the glamorous surface to the cold-hard truths beneath.

To say any more about the revelations of Three Identical Strangers would ruin the surprise and half-the-fun. Just know that the shocking developments of its story reveal much about the way we’re raised and how we come to be the people we are. Avoid Google searches and Wikipedia pages and be treated to one of the great surprises of 2018.

8 out of 10

Three Identical Strangers (2018, USA/UK)

Directed by Tim Wardle; featuring David Kellman, Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland.