One of the more entertaining yet profoundly disturbing documentaries of this or any year, “Three Identical Strangers” starts out on an irresistible high: three 19-year-old boys, triplets separated at birth, who rediscovered each other at the dawn of the 1980s, to both their delight and ours. I’ll spare you the details of the reunion, since their telling in Tim Wardle’s film by two of the brothers, Bobby Shafran and David Kellman, is so genuinely funny and heartwarming, and because the triplet’s subsequent tour of the TV talk-show circuit — Phil Donahue, Tom Brokaw, Jane Pauley — is so well represented here.
Beneath the joyous reconnection, however, is a bass note of uncertainty, and the real, unsettling power of “Three Identical Strangers” — despite an over-reliance on dramatic reenactments and other slick touches — has to do with the lasting damage that can be done in the name of learning. I don’t want to begin to spoil the surprises this sometimes gasp-inducing movie springs on the brothers and the audience, but just when you think the situation can’t get any weirder, darker, or more morally appalling, it does. And does. And does again.
But first the happiness. “The three of them ended up like puppies wrestling on the floor,” is how one family witness recalls the initial meeting of Bobby, David, and the third brother, Eddy Galland, who’s not present to tell his side of the story. The boys moved in together, opened a Manhattan restaurant called Triplets, lived the Reagan-era New York City high life. “They belonged to each other,” says David’s aunt Hedy Page, the wisest and most eloquent of the movie’s many third-party talking heads.
The boys’ parents had already angrily confronted New York’s prestigious Louise Wise adoption agency about keeping them in the dark about their sons’ background, and as “Three Identical Strangers” rolls on and notes of discord creep into the good times a horrifying narrative of institutional overreach begins to reveal itself.
Why were the boys separated at six months? Who were the people who regularly came to interview them in their childhoods? Was it coincidence that each boy was raised in a different economic class? Or that each struggled with emotional and other problems during his adolescence and that one of them continued to?
Wardle follows these strands to the end of their respective lines, interviewing aged psychologists and others, but he and the brothers also bang up against obdurate walls of silence. While keeping the story brisk and, as appropriate, entertainingly glib — when Eddy marries his wife, Brenda, how can you not put Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” on the soundtrack? — “Three Identical Strangers” lets us know that a great crime has been committed, one that few in the 1950s and 1960s considered a crime at all but that nevertheless stained the life of everyone it touched.
That includes more than the triplets. Through interviews with New Yorker investigative journalist Lawrence Wright and a pair of female twins (one of them the film critic Paula Bernstein) who were similarly separated by the Louise Wise agency and who found each other late in life, we glimpse a heartbreaking shadow world of families disconnected and lives unled. That there remain people out there who may not know they have a twin brother or sister -- and who may never know given that certain records are sealed until 2066 — is an infuriating situation that demands addressing.
At its most fascinating bottom level, the movie (a CNN co-production that will air on the news channel in December) is a meditation on the endless debate between nature and nurture: whether we’re programmed by the genes with which we’re born or molded by the people with whom we’re raised. Early on, “Three Identical Strangers” coyly comes down on the “nature” side of the equation, indulging our fascination with the way the triplets walk alike, talk alike, smoke the same brand of cigarette, and so forth.
As the film deepens its field of inquiry, though, the picture becomes more nuanced. Our attention is called to the many things Bobby and David and Eddy didn’t have in common, and how David’s warmly loving father may have been a far more stabilizing influence than the strict disciplinarian who raised Eddy. The filmmakers’ sensible conclusion is that identity is the result of a complicated competition between heredity and environment, and that trying to fix the outcome is naïve arrogance at best and cruelty at worst. Well after the astonishment of its narrative fades, “Three Identical Strangers” is a movie to make you think twice about your own siblings — and maybe take a long look in the mirror at yourself.
★ ★ ★½
THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS
Directed by Tim Wardle. Starring Bobby Shafran, David Kellman. Eddy Galland. At Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, West Newton. 98 minutes. PG-13 (mature thematic material).