Three Identical Strangers is a documentary loaded with surprises though the story it tells is nearly 60 years old. British director Tim Wardle unspools revelations that go from euphoric, then nightmarish, to utterly demonic.
The tale starts in 1980 when freshman Robert Shafran starts school at Sullivan Community College in the Catskills region of New York and wonders why everyone greets him as "Eddy." Strangers hug him, and women kiss him even though he has never met them before.
Three Identical Strangers
86 Cast: documentary with Robert Shafran, David Kellman, Eddy Galland, Lawrence Wright
Director: Tim Wardle
Rating: PG-13 for some mature thematic material
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
He quickly learns that he looks exactly like Eddy Galland and even shares the same July 12, 1961, birthday. The two meet up and discover that they were both adopted and are identical twins who've been separated at birth.
Actually, that's not true.
David Kellman reads about them in the New York tabloids and notices they resemble him as well. All three young men are really triplets.
The three visit every talk show in sight (Donahue, Today), appear in the cult classic movie Desperately Seeking Susan (Madonna's first starring role) and even start their own successful eatery, named, of course, Triplets.
The young men quickly become close and share some intriguing similarities. They all smoke Marlboros and date older women.
Their adoptive parents, however, become deeply concerned. The now defunct adoption agency, Louise Wise Services, tells the parents that they couldn't place twins or triplets together as easily as they could individual babies.
Years later, the explanation proves false when Texas-based journalist Lawrence Wright (the author of Going Clear and The Looming Tower) discovers that the triplets and other Jewish adoptees were actually part of a multi-year experiment.
From here, what seems like an innocent discovery changes into what Robert appropriately calls, "Nazi sh*t." Peter Neubauer, a clinical psychiatry professor at NYU, planned a multiyear experiment with identical siblings, but no one is sure how many children were part of the experiment or what Neubauer hoped to learn. He died a decade ago, and his data are under seal until 2066.
While one component of the study appears to have been determining if nature or nurture was a more powerful force in a child's development, many of the children suffered with mental health problems that can be attributed to the experiment. Worse, Neubauer may have even chosen biological parents who had psychological problems of their own and didn't pass on the information to the people who gave the children homes.
Wardle presents the triplets' struggle in a seemingly straightforward manner. Nonetheless, careful viewers can spot small but significant clues in the early portions of the film that hint at the unethical and even sordid nature of the experiment.
As Wright admits in the film, much of the information needed to draw a firm conclusion about Neubauer's work and its long-term consequences, simply isn't there. Thanks to the film, surviving triplets Robert and David have been able to see some of the sealed material, but the meaning is still elusive. Two of Neubauer's research assistants talk on record to Wardle, but their involvement was so limited, it's hard to tell what the broader goals of the experiment were.
Yet the unresolved mysteries make for a better movie.
Like Wright, Neubauer and the triplets themselves, it's impossible to watch the film without asking the same things they did. It's ironic a movie that clearly demonstrates the dangers curiosity should leave viewers with an endless series of questions.
MovieStyle on 07/27/2018
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