Everyone loves a good twin story — the more dramatic and unfathomable, the better. I’m talking “Parent Trap” and “Twitches,” those movies we watched while growing up, where identical twins are adopted, and then, by some incredible twist of fate, find each other in adulthood.
This is the kind of story I expected when I saw Tim Wardle’s “Three Identical Strangers,” though I went in knowing that there were two major differences between this film and my favorite twin movies from childhood. The first difference is that the film is about triplets rather than twins. The second is that “Three Identical Strangers” is a true story. The separation, the chance encounters, the instant bonding — all of it true. All of it happened in real life to real people.
“Three Identical Strangers” starts off like you want it to (jovial, entertaining), and how you might expect, the story unraveling through a combination of retellings from the people involved and reenactments of how everything went down. Wardle really sells it. He wants you to see it unfold the way the rest of the world did, back in 1980 when three long-lost brothers met by chance in New York. You, like the triplets, are blinded by your awe. You, like the triplets, have no idea how dark this story is going to get.
There’s something about the seriousness with which Bobby Shafran, one of the triplets, looks straight through the camera when he tells you what happened. There’s something off about the fact that only two of the three brothers are narrating the story. All of the clues were there from the beginning, but the film is expertly crafted so that the audience can only see those clues in retrospect, once the true nature of the triplets’ separation is revealed.
Though the film turns the classic twin tale on its head, it is every bit as entertaining as a story of this nature should be, and Wardle does an impressive job of keeping the audience engaged — sometimes a tricky maneuver for non-fiction films. However, I question some of the characterization that goes on in “Three Identical Strangers.”
Though a true story, the director and producers still have the final say on how it’s told. The people may be real, but they are still distinct characters — there are people to root for or root against, people you have an inexplicable affection for and people you get a bad feeling about. This means some interviewees are painted as antagonists. There are specific camera shots and darker music played while some people are speaking, which creates a more ominous, unsettling tone. It feels unfair to the people who have agreed to be a part of this project, especially considering that their contributions are crucial to the holistic plot development the film manages to pull off.
“Three Identical Strangers” is not a feel-good movie, albeit riveting. It tries to exit on a hopeful note, but after retelling such disturbing events, it’s hardly convincing. More than anything, the film is thought-provoking. It calls ethics into question, and asks that we decide what is more important: learning about humanity or being humane?