Documentaries offer us portraits and allow us experiences that we might never otherwise have access to, and that help us understand just how rich and strange a world this really is. From time to time, though, I see a documentary that leaves me rattled because it reveals some truth about human nature that I wish desperately was not true. Tim Wardle’s Three Identical Strangers rattled me more than any non-fiction story I’ve ever seen at Sundance precisely because of the breadth of what the story covers and because of the dread I felt rising in me as I watched the story unfold.
While I do not spend much active time thinking about it, there is little doubt that being adopted as a newborn is one of the defining details of my life. My parents, the ones who have been there for me as long as I have been aware, made a decision to have me in their life, and I’ve always been cognizant of that. It sent me an early important message: you are loved, you are wanted, and you are valued. And whatever else happened over the course of my life, my parents have always been there to back up those ideas with action and with unwavering love and support. I am lucky in so many ways, and I acknowledge that. I was given a leg up in the world from several different factors before I ever did a thing. I won the first lottery when I was born American. I won a second lottery when I was born white. Another when I was born male. But the one that mattered most was when I was adopted by loving parents into a loving home.
As a result of my own lack of curiosity and the laws of the state where I was born, I have no information about my own genetic background. I was told in vague terms that I am Scotch-Irish, and that my birth parents were young. Everything else is a giant game of genetic roulette. I don’t know if there are any illnesses in my future, because I have no idea about my own past. It’s a hell of a feeling, and if I’m honest about it, there’s a wee bit of existential horror built into it. It is something I have incorporated into my life, and that I am at peace with. Everything about my attitude is because my parents always told me the complete truth about who I am and where I began.
Imagine if they hadn’t.
And now imagine the worst reason someone might hide that truth.
The true story that is told in Three Identical Strangers is bizarre, and it starts with a random, crazy coincidence. Robert Shafran was 19 when he reported to the campus of the Sullivan County Community College for his first day of classes. As he strolled across the campus, people greeted him warmly like they’d known him for a while. He ran into a kid who lost his mind at how much he looked like Eddy Galland, a guy who had just transferred out to another school. When Shafran and Galland discovered they shared a birthday, it was apparent they needed to meet, and sure enough, they were identical twins, born in the same place, adopted via the same agency. Even crazier, when a newspaper ran their story, David Kellman reached out to them and it became clear that he was another identical brother, with the same details. The Louise Wise Service out of Manhattan had placed all three of the boys, and when asked about what happened by all of the parents, all the service offered was an excuse about how placing three boys together would have been “harder.” The Gallands, the Shafrans, and the Kellmans all want answers, while the boys just want to get to know each other.
There’s a giddy, goofy energy to a big stretch of the film as the brothers basically crash into one another’s lives, suddenly doing everything together. They became celebrities, and there’s a lot of stock footage of them being interviewed by Jane Pauley, Tom Brokaw, Phil Donahue, and more. They went into business together. They partied together. It was the late ‘70s in New York City, so places like Limelight and Studio 54 were part of their social scene, and we see press clippings in which their misadventures made headlines in the Post. If the film was just about the joy of learning that you have a connection to someone else in the world, there’s plenty of power there. One of the reasons the birth of my children was so special is because they are the first blood relatives I have in the world. I am part of them, and they of me, and I’d never experienced that before. It is different. I can offer unconditional love to people, but that’s a choice, a decision I make. With my kids, it was instant, and there’s no choice involved.
Eddy, Robert, and David all talk about how they had that moment when they met one another, how they instantly felt that lightning bolt, and the power of that never fades. The film traces how their relationships grew more complicated once they actually shared their lives, and of course it did. Family relationships are complicated, and history is a big part of what complicates them. You squabble. You see things in different ways. You get angry. And you forgive. You learn how to do that as you grow together, and these three guys were all already 19 years old when they met. They had time to become different people, without all of the history that would help them tackle challenges together. Watching them condense all of that into their relationship which is, at least in part, playing itself out on a public stage, is a fairly intense emotional ride.
But there’s another side to the film, and here’s where I’ll speak carefully so as not to give things away. Any audience that sees this should be able to experience the narrative without having it all given away early. Tim Wardle’s done a terrific job of constructing this. He knew how big this story is, and he is careful to lay it out piece by piece. In a way, it helped me digest some of the information because if I’d had it all at once, all in one big gulp, I’m not sure I would have been able to get my head or my heart around it. It is an awful story, and I am not kidding when I say that the stink of real evil hangs over the reasons behind separating the boys. They are not the only family broken up, either, and that’s a pretty shocking reveal. This is not just the story of these three boys and the people who raised them; it is a larger story about what happens when curiosity trumps decency, when science is more important than humanity. There are threads that Wardle introduces that he never quite explicitly connects, but it’s enough to set this in a very disturbing context. The people who made the choices about the boys are not seen here, and small wonder. I would not be willing to speak about my culpability in something this dark, and I cannot imagine living with the knowledge of how much harm your actions had done.
Ultimately, Three Identical Strangers is a perfect summary of the nature vs. nurture discussion, and watching how the lives of these men played out from that unlikely meeting is heartbreaking. While I think this film will play for every audience, and I think it’s one of the best overall movies I’ve seen at the festival this year, there is little doubt that being adopted made this a very uncomfortable emotional experience for me, and a personal one. I cannot imagine learning halfway into my life that I had family that had been kept from me intentionally and for a reason that had nothing to do with my own well-being. It’s a lot to drop into these lives, and the way they each bear that sudden weight speaks directly to the parents who raised them. I know that after I saw the film, I called my own parents to tell them again how lucky I feel.
I will not easily shake off the moral and ethical questions raised by Three Identical Strangers, and I salute Tim Wardle for finding exactly the right emotional pitch at which to tell a story that would have consumed me in blistering fury if I was the one trying to tell it.
Running time: 96 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic