It is 1980 and and Bobby Shafran is set to start college – Sullivan County College to be exact. He is greeted by many people as an old friend and is confusingly called Eddie by them. But then he meets Eddie Galland, who started Sullivan County College the year before, and he basically looks at his own face. The two boys realize that they are twins, separated at birth and growing up with two different adoptive families. They are overjoyed to have found each other, their story hits the news – and then David Kellman turns up: yet another adopted boy who looks like them. They were triplets after all. But that reconnection is only the beginning of their story – and the story behind their separation.
Three Identical Strangers tells a pretty hair-raising story in a way that might be a little too sensationalist. But it’s a good story indeed.
[SPOILERS? If you’re not familiar with the background of this story, you will be if you continue reading. Of course, it remains debatable whether you can “spoil” a documentary.]
Three Identical Strangers works a lot with hyperbole – as you can already tell from the film poster that boasts that it is “the most amazing, incredible, remarkable true story ever told”. And the film does stick with that tone almost the entirety of the film. It seems delighted with every new information it can divulge, but mostly because it hopes that the next bit is really going to blow your mind.
A lot of the story works when told that way. The first discovery of the three brothers, how they became a sensation and so on – it’s the right tone for that. But once the story turns towards the illicit experiment behind their lives – the three of them were part of a (huge!) twin study conducted by the adoption agency without the knowledge or consent of the children and their parents – it should have calmed down a little. We’re talking about a serious breach of ethics here: experimenting on people without their consent, splitting siblings up and not telling them about each other and more. The sheer audacity of the scientists involved here, the self-aggrandizing decision-making: it’s breathtaking in itself. It doesn’t need the sensationalism the film can’t seem to shake.
The fate of the three brothers and the other children affected by the study kept me interested in the story – so much so that I left the film hoping that there would be a sequel at some point, exploring what happened to them (and the others) since. Despite the interest, the sensationalism and the excitement, the film does have lengths here and there. Maybe because it’s not quite as surprising as it thinks it is – even when you don’t know the story. Personally, I knew about twin studies in general, but not this one in particular, but I managed to deduce pretty quickly what was going on (just not the amorality of it).
No matter of the questions this asked regarding nature vs nurture with the study, the clearest answer it got was how much experiments like that can screw with people, emphasizing how important ethical scientific standards are. A topic well worth exploring.
Summarizing: Great story, not entirely great film.