[This is a re-post of my Three Identical Strangers review from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The movie opens in limited release on June 29th.]
The Nature vs. Nurture debate is one that has raged for decades, with scientists attempting to assess what makes a person who they are: their genes, or the environment and manner in which they’re raised? As of now the debate continues, but director Tim Wardle’s shocking, poignant, and surprisingly touching documentary Three Identical Strangers tackles the “Nature vs. Nurture” head on with a story that is truly stranger than fiction.
In 1980 New York, 19-year-old Bobby Shafran showed up to his first day of class as a freshman at a community college upstate, only to be greeted by a bevy of strangers as one of their well-known friends. Everyone acted like they knew him, but he had never met any of them in his life. Finally, a fellow student who knew one of his close friends was not attending college that year pressed Bobby—Was he adopted? What was his birthday? The answer to the first question was yes, and the answer to the second was identical to the birthday of the guy’s friend, Eddy Galland. Bobby and this other student hopped on the phone, connected with Eddy, and drove straight to Eddy’s house. As Bobby tells it, it was like looking into a mirror. A reporter got wind of this story of long-lost twins and wrote a feel-good story on Bobby and Eddy—only to be contacted by another 19-year-old named David Kellman, who revealed that he was shocked to learn he might be their other brother. Triplets!
This triplets separated at birth story caught fire with the New York community, and the trio became local celebrities. They went on the Today Show and Phil Donahue, they partied at Studio 54 together, and they all got a new apartment in New York City. Their parents, however, were outraged and angered. How had the adoption agency let this happen? Why in the world would they separate three identical siblings? As it turns out, the truth behind what the Louise Wise Adoption agency—one of the most prestigious and powerful in New York—had done was far more sinister than anyone could have imagined.
I’ll leave the synopsis there so as not to spoil the film’s twists and turns, but suffice it to say this film packs a heck of a lot of surprises, most of which will make your jaw drop. What I can say is this: These three identical twins were raised from birth until the age of 19 with very different parents. One was adopted into a blue-collar family, with parents that owned a local shop. One was adopted into a middle-class family, with a teacher father. And another was adopted into a wealthy family, with a doctor father and an attorney mother. If ever there was a test scenario to examine the Nature vs. Nurture debate, surely this is it right?
The Nature vs. Nurture debate is a very large part of Three Identical Strangers, and those who are obsessed with this particular psychological question will find a lot to chew on here both in terms of psychology and ethics. Wardle navigates a variety of tones pretty effortlessly, as the film begins almost like a teen comedy, with the verve and pulse of a great body-swapping movie or something, before morphing into a sort of thriller. There are a few reenactments in the vein of The Imposter, and indeed in terms of style I’d say this film is very similar to that 2012 documentary. The editing and pacing is terrific, to the point that even if you’re not traditionally a fan of documentaries (and you should be, they’re great), I can confidently guarantee this movie hooks you from the very beginning and never lets up.
It plays out almost like a mystery thriller, but Wardle never forsakes his subjects for flashy style or plot twists. Those things exist in the film, but organically so, and he takes the time to return to Bobby, Eddy, and David as the heart of this story. That’s especially important as the film starts to dig into really dark places—for a documentary that begins feeling like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, things get incredibly emotional as we see the effect that this separation had on these three young kids, and how it forever shaped their lives.
So what’s more important in determining the kind of person you will be, your genetics or your upbringing? Honestly, I could see some people pointing to Three Identical Strangers as definitive proof of what side this debate comes down on, and while the film does shed illuminating light on this psychological subject, it also embraces the humanity therein. Three Identical Strangers is shocking, thrilling, and wildly entertaining, but it’s also incredibly moving, leaving a lasting impression that you won’t easily shake. I have a feeling this is a film we’re going to be talking about for a long time to come.