“Three Identical Strangers” starts out like a happy-go-lucky story of reunion and joy and, bit by tantalizing bit, turns into something far different.
How that happens is something you need to discover for yourself. Tim Wardle’s documentary contains as many twists as a great thriller. The impact should hit you with full force.
The film begins with a story some may be familiar with. In 1980, Robert Shafran showed up for his first day at community college in New York. He was greeted by people who treated him like an old friend. One woman kissed him on the lips.
They all called him Eddy.
Another student showed up at his door and looked stunned. Are you adopted, he asked? Yes, Robert said. They put things together and drove through the night to arrive at the home of Eddy Galland. Robert and Eddy were stunned — it was like looking in the mirror. Newsday, among other outlets, did a story on the remarkable developments.
And then a kid named David Kellman saw the story. These guys looked just like him.
They were triplets, separated at birth and taken in by three different families. None knew anything about the other. One family was wealthy, one middle-class, one blue-collar. But as TV hosts like Phil Donahue, Tom Brokaw, Jane Pauley and many more noted, they shared striking similarities. They all smoked the same brand of cigarettes. They all had the same taste in women. They shared certain mannerisms.
They became stars of the ’80s tabloid variety. They opened a steakhouse. They had a cameo in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” ogling Madonna for a few seconds as she saunters past.
Eventually, they went away, disappearing from the public eye.
Naturally, that’s when things get really interesting.
Even the most cursory look at their story brings up nagging questions. Why were they separated? They were all placed by Louise Wise Services, a well-connected adoption agency in New York. How did all three end up in different economic circumstances? Why did all three families have an older adopted sister, all the same age? Are they as alike as they seem?
Wardle provides answers, such as he can find. (He relies a little too much on reenactments, but not to a distracting degree.) Contemporary interviews include the occasional reaction to newfound information. Lawrence Wright, the New Yorker writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, investigates, as well. Every revelation leads to another, more frustrating one, it seems.
It’s striking, early in the film, when the triplets are reunited, how elated they are to be in each others’ company. Anyone with siblings can attest, of course, that it’s not all hugs and happiness. That’s true with these three, too. There are successes and failures, joys and tragedies, as with any family. But circumstances with this specific family make you ask how much has been random.
To say more would take away from the power of the story as Wardle tells it. If that’s not tantalizing enough, some of the questions can’t be answered for decades more. It’s all part of a puzzle, one that isn’t complete yet, but is no less fascinating, and frustrating, for not being finished.
Neon presents a documentary directed by Tim Wardle. Rated PG-13 (for some mature thematic material). Running time: 96 minutes. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.