By Elias Savada.
I’ve been told, at rare moments throughout my life, that I look just like someone else, other than my dad or a close cousin, of course. Usually, if shown a photograph of the other person, I would not see a resemblance at all. For Robert Shafran, Edward Galland, and David Kellman, there was no escaping the sameness they shared with one another. When they turned 19 years old, these strangers discovered they were identical triplets and their lookalike lives were never the same.
There’s a large part of Three Identical Strangers that is disturbing, even though it’s a smile-inducing miracle story about a family reunited, an early variant of the DNA pattern solving tv shows that abound today. More maddening, too many questions remain unanswered – including big who and why ones – by the time Tim Wardle’s absorbing, albeit occasionally annoying, feature debut draws to its end. The film’s subjects became a media frenzy back in the early 1980s, fueled by a story in Newsday about a remarkably happenstance reunion of indistinguishable twins. It was an amazing celebration that one-upped itself when another brother joined the party.
The film’s subsequent road beyond the triplet’s fluke reunion is strewn with news footage and television interviews (often repeated for overly dramatic effect) by Tom Brokaw, Phil Donahue, and others. The film’s retrospective approach also cobbles numerous family members’ recollections, photos, and other memorabilia of the fame that followed, as well as reporters, friends, and classmates talking it up.
For the years leading up to the discovery of their relationship, the boys led relatively undocumented lives, which forces a creative decision that I generally abhor within the documentary genre. That’s the use of “actors” to recreate significant episodes in a film’s chronology. When this reconstruction becomes too dramatically realistic – as it does at times in Three Identical Strangers – I want to cry foul. It breaks the wall of believability and causes a distraction from the film’s core focus. As this talking heads film begins, a middle-aged man (Robert) tells the viewer he has an unbelievably bizarre story that truly began on his first day of college….
That’s when Rainbow’s cover version of Argent guitarist Russ Ballard’s Since You Been Gone blasts through the soundtrack and a 1970 red Volvo is shown speeding along a rustic road. As Robert continues his eye-bulging, jaw-dropping monologue, his young, curly-haired “Bobby” self is shown – mostly from the back and in slo-mo, soft-focus alt-portrait mode – as he is repeatedly mistaken for someone named Eddy, who attended this tranquil, playful New York State community college the previous year. I can understand the amusement in the editorial technique, flipping between the make-believe setting and the 56-year-old Robert’s recollections of himself as a bewildered 19-year-old student. He talks about girls kissing him, as the frame cuts to a coed embracing the stand-in. This frantic eight-minute opening sequence definitely is engrossing. This reenactment technique was popular with several of the E! Network shows many years ago. I didn’t like it then and barely can stomach it today. Thankfully, it is fleetingly used through the rest of the film.
Beyond the rarity of giving birth to identical triplets (maybe 20-30 occurrences per one million births), I suspect no one has ever documented how one such set has ever been lost and then found. I remember the headlines at the time and probably watched some of the chatter about them. If you’ve watched Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan, which I have many times, you will remember their brief cameo. There are plenty of highlights covering the hype and circumstance surrounding the reunion, but the story goes well beyond what most of us alive at the time remember. About a third into his film, Wardle and his producers (Becky Read and Grace Hughes-Hallett) push the just-when-you-thought-it-couldn’t-get-weirder button.
Cue the footage of Pulitzer Prize-winning author/journalist Lawrence Wright talking about his mid-1990s investigation into a peculiar nurture-vs.-nature study about identical siblings conducted by mysterious psychology types. Let the twists in this already enthralling story begin. The filmmakers manage to locate and interview several of the folks that were involved in what quickly becomes a breakneck series of sobering events concerning the brothers, as Robert and David continue to discuss how their “situation” has changed through the ensuing decades. None of the men ever fully realized the scope of the lens that was being focused on them in the name of “science.”
As Three Identical Strangers rolls toward the meditative condemnation of numerous scientists, and documents apparently stored away from anyone until 2066, it’s easy to compare how this damning material is being secreted away in the expansive warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. “They don’t know what they’ve got there,” Indiana Jones proclaims at the end of that film. Wardle’s respectful ending may have discovered the creepier version of the identical brothers’ lost ark of the covenant, but you’ll have to wait for a postscript for a fuller explanation about how people who think they’re smart continue to muck things up.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).