2018 | rated PG-13 | Documentary | directed by Tim Wardle | 1 hr 36 mins |
Three Identical Strangers opens with what would be a third act reality-redefining twist in a scripted movie. It has to get to that fairly quickly because it has a lot of twisting yet to come. The documentary tells the astonishing true story of Bobby, Eddie and David, three individuals who when they turned 19 one-by-one they started encountering their own doppelganger and came to learn they were identical triples, separated at birth and adopted out to three families.
The story of the triplets reunited becomes a media sensation, plastered across newspapers, sending the triplets on a media blitz that includes Phil Donahue and Tom Brokaw and ultimately parlaying their notoriety into a happening New York restaurant, “Triplets”, amazing everyone with their story of being raised apart, but meeting each other to find they acted almost identical in every way from their movements to their tastes in Marlboro cigarettes. All the while they immediately bond as brothers and tear up the town. The first section of the film is a live-wire, set to the exuberant pop sounds of “Walking on Sunshine” and “Kids in America”. It’s such an over-the-top celebration that the curious viewer will brace for the fall, the about face, the section where some of the missing sections and skipped over interviews will get filled in.
When those explanations come, it is a doozy. Three Identical Strangers is structured like an elevator that’s cables are snapping. It drops us down levels, stops, hangs there and then drops again at the smallest disturbance. The way it rolls out is quintessential storytelling where each answer leads to another question and each new question a new darker revelation. A suspicious adoption agency, alcoholism, mental illness and death mix into this tapestry, but it’s truly unbelievable Alex Gibney-esque turn of the screw is where Strangers falls into “This Movie has a Secret Worth Keeping” territory. The film’s story of separated twins ultimately spirals out into a larger issue, as the best documentaries do, this time into a discussion of the biggest of ideas: the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture and how much free will we truly have in our lives. In delving into such universal ideas and doing so in such a thoughtful (and occasionally funny) way, Strangers transcends it’s genre. Three Identical Strangers should get everyone talking, even those that don’t like documentaries.
I’m of two minds about how this movie is put together. Director Tim Wardle doesn’t follow the events in order or as the characters know them. Instead of telling the story he structures the movie to be an escalating series of surprises doled out as he sees fit. This involves keeping the audience in the dark about a few things that the interviewees on screen already know about. It involves skipping over a few details to reveal later when the time is right. He makes the movie less like a documentary and more like a narrative. I think it’s the right call, the results on screen speak for themselves and are very effective, but it’s worth a debate. A drier more linear version of this story probably wouldn’t have been as effective as a thrilling piece of entertainment – and yet – I felt like at times I was seeing the strings being pulled. Even so, it’s structure beautifully and for maximum dramatic impact. Three Identical Strangers is a documentary that should cross over into pass appeal. Few movies this year made me want to grab people and immediately discuss and dissect it with them quite like this one.