Dr. Nancy West, a longtime cinema member and Professor of English at The University of Missouri, writes about Ragtag films for our website.
As an only child, I’ve always been fascinated by sibling relationships: how they shape our sense of identity, how they define our relationships with our parents, how they wound and heal. I’ve always thought that having a sibling would be like having another anchor in the world. So when I saw the preview for Three Identical Strangers, which also played at this year’s True/False Film Fest, I knew I wanted to see it.
Wardle’s film is a documentary about identical triplets, separated at six months old, who discover each other by happenstance 19 years later. Their names are Robert Shafran, Edward Galland and David Kellman, and each one, with his megawatt smile, enormous eyes and mop of brown curly hair, is irrepressibly charming. Watching them onscreen is reason enough to see the movie.
But there are many other reasons. Three Identical Strangers asks big questions—about sibling relationships, the forces that shape self-identity, and why some of us can overcome the cruelties of fate while others of us cannot.
Pause on this for a moment: What would it feel like to discover, at 19, two human beings who seem exactly like you, with your hands and mannerisms, your smile and taste in cigarettes? That’s the first question the film asks, and the answer, voiced by one of the brothers, is “beautiful.” The first thirty minutes of Three Identical Strangers are a joyous upper, all laughs and bear hugs as the brothers come to know each other. In footage of them out in public, at Studio 54 or on the Phil Donahue Show, or playing Frisbee at one another’s homes, they seem bursting with happiness. They buy an apartment together. Open a restaurant together. Sleep in the same bed. One of the best moments in Identical Strangers, in fact, is the recounting of their reunion by David’s elderly aunt, Hedy, who says they were “just like puppies.” “Within five minutes,” she says, “they were wrestling on the floor.”
But soon enough the film turns darker and more disturbing. The brothers aren’t quite the affable, easygoing men they seem. We learn that one of them may have been involved in a murder as a teenager. As business partners, they fight; gradually, they grow estranged from each other. The promise of a magical kinship they felt at 19 gets broken, and for one of them, it is too much of a disappointment to handle.
A much larger darkness also operates in Three Identical Strangers; midway through the film, Wardle reveals that a team of psychological researchers orchestrated the brothers’ separation, unbeknownst to any of the adoptive parents, to see how they would grow up independently. “We were lab rats,” says David. The film then reveals the emotional price each brother paid for this experiment: the nights they spent as babies crying in anguish or banging their heads against the cribs because their brothers had been taken from them. We learn, finally, that what ultimately links these three men is not their looks or mannerisms but their sense of incompleteness.
At its core, Three Identical Strangers is all about selfhood. Does the way we grow up mold our identity, or are we, in the end, an accidental arrangement of atoms? Americans never tire of asking this question, given how much we obsess about ways to realize and improve who we are. And yet for all the attention we pay to matters of the self, we have no stronger sense of what constitutes it than we did, say, a hundred years ago. At bottom, we remain a mystery. The beauty of Three Identical Strangers is in how it uses a very singular story to get at this universal truth.