File Under 2018 #81: Three Identical Strangers


What it's about: Bobby Shafran was a college freshman arriving on campus for the first time when something strange happened: people he had never met before were greeting him as if they were close friends, someone even mistakenly called him "Eddy." A random stranger popped his head into Bobby's dorm room and asked him if he was adopted. The stranger took Bobby to meet Eddy that night and the resemblance was not only clear, it was extraordinary. Their story was told in a New York newspaper and attracted the attention of a third brother, David. The three young men, separated at birth, quickly became a national media sensation. But the circumstances of their birth and adoptions caught up with the joy of their meeting.

Unorganized thoughts:

  • It seems like every few years a documentary comes out that quickly becomes notorious for its "stranger than fiction" craziness. I remembered hearing the same kind of buzz for Catfish and Tickled that I heard on Tim Wardle's Three Identical Strangers leading up to its theatrical release. The basic story is something incredible, even unbelievable, and the film's marketing really showcased that. But the buzz suggested the intriguing set-up was only the beginning.

  • Three Identical Strangers is difficult to talk about in any meaningful way without getting into the twists and turns, so be warned.

  • That said, the film does a lot to foreshadow where the story eventually goes. Who tells the story and who doesn't tell the story gives some clues. What people are saying and what people aren't saying does, too. Though Three Identical Strangers starts pretty clearly as a fun and uplifting story, it never really hides that there is some shady stuff behind the story.

  • Because of that, I was never truly shocked by its turns, though they do offer a lot of intriguing questions. Three Identical Strangers definitely isn't the same kind of class as Catfish or Tickled that had me on the edge of my seat wondering what could possibly happen next.

  • Three Identical Strangers is filled with old photographs, home videos, and news footage shown over and over again. Some of this is part of its revelation structure [remember all these things that were said that point to this new specific point?], though it also seemed to need to keep the visuals as busy as the story being told.

  • OK, so on to some specifics. One of the most complex questions at the heart of the film is the nature of scientific study. I don't think anyone would argue that the study which involved the triplets and other identical twins was performed ethically or appropriately -- there was not enough transparency for those involved, there didn't seem to be a consistent question to be answered, the methods of collecting data were extreme, etc.

  • That said, Three Identical Strangers struck me of having a pretty anti-science stance, like it took one [extremely] poor example and blew it up to argue that any extensive scientific study that might explore similar questions wouldn't have any value. At the very least, I'm confused about what the film is exactly trying to say about the bigger picture in this story.

  • As it becomes crazier, the film tries to crystallize over the "nature vs. nurture" debate but never can really make a cogent thought. By the end I think the film is more balanced on the side of "nurture" but it definitely misses opportunities to narrow in on a point-of-view. Specifically, there is a line said by someone [I don't recall who] that really struck me, something to the effect that everyone focused in on the triplets' similarities and they really never cared to notice the differences. In ways, the film does the exact same thing.

  • Seeing the brothers express their anger based on their experiences is a potent emotional punch. It is impossible to disagree with their thoughts on their lives because they are the ones who've lived through it. It is undeniably a tragic story.

  • In that way, Three Identical Strangers is very effective as a specific emotional story about three brothers and their families. As a broader exploration of bigger issues around scientific responsibility it just isn't as successful -- in part because of its point-of-view, but also because of the unfortunate circumstances that the study has never been completed or published to have any real scientific value. It's an unenviable position.

  • The questions the film raises are really important and can definitely lead to some really good discourse [my wife and I disagreed about the film but had a really good conversation over it] but I'm not sure the film competently raises those questions on their own. I can't help but think that if Errol Morris had the rights to this it would have been a much more thought-provoking and explicitly about the questions underneath the tabloid and shadowy story.