Published Jul 10, 2018A quote from one of the subjects comes early on, and the sentiment recurs throughout: "When I tell people the story, they don't believe it." In the early goings of Three Identical Strangers, the feature documentary debut of director Tim Wardle, interview subjects are still giddy at the amazing circumstances detailed here. At times, it's like a family friend has invited you into their living room, saying, "Let me tell you the incredible story of how identical triplets, split up at birth, found each other."
The three brothers come together when they're young men in 1980s New York. Robert gets to college for his first semester, only to discover that, the year before, someone identical to him had attended the same school. Eventually, this coincidence and resulting news coverage draws together Robert, Eddy and David, all three sharing the same burly bodies, the same dark, curly hair, the same big hands and the same infectious smiles.
Three Identical Strangers goes on to detail the years that followed: how they came together, the swell of public attention that followed these mirror-image charmers, and how the choice to break them up as a trio for adoption affected the rest of their lives.
There's plenty of time to revel in the fun, flashy bits. The film, always quick with a needle drop, even throws on "Walking on Sunshine" to underscore the period. Wardle digs deep into the trove of TV interviews they did at the time, showing the brothers soaking up the attention. This footage, newspaper clippings and talking head spots make up the bulk of the onscreen material here, along with some unremarkable recreations where key scenes get faceless re-enactments that mostly highlight the paucity of sources available to make this story visual.
As easy as it would be to get drawn in by stories of the triplets partying in a shared apartment and heading out to Studio 54 every other night, the film hints at darkness early on. The absence of Eddy from any of the film's talking-head interviews speaks to a development that must divide the brothers. In spurts, the film begins to grapple with one of the fundamental questions of humanity — the primacy of nurture or nature in an individual developing into who they are.
As babies, the triplets were placed in home that were affluent, middle class, and blue collar, with differing parenting styles on top of that. In the interviewees descriptions of the brothers, there's a noticeable difference in the men they are, from reserved and outgoing and beyond. Just how similar or dissimilar are they, and why?
This is where Three Identical Strangers digs in, asking why they should be separated and questioning the lasting impact. We hear from journalist Lawrence Wright, whose book Going Clear was adapted into an HBO documentary; he speaks to the perspective of scientific institutions looking into where the self comes from. Here, that's addressed from the perspective of these three connected lives, a view that's limiting when they're trying to bring evidence to bear about the larger "nurture versus nature" debate that stretch. We see a few quick montages of scenes earlier in the film to support certain points when a casual viewer should be able to recall general details of a film that's an hour and a half long while they're watching it.
The perspective is more illuminating when told as a personal story about these brothers. The two triplets interviewed look different in the present — from their younger selves and from each other. There's no question their lives have diverged, whether or not they were three identical lumps of clay to begin with. Interviewees talk about the intense, instant connection the three of them had. It's a shame we can't see it in its natural form here. But Robert and David are still open to sit down and take you through how they got to where they are.