I would wager that most of us had a pretty jarring experience when we first arrived at university. However, New Yorker Bobby Shafran had arguably the weirdest, having been introduced to his long lost twin brother for the first time.
Now, imagine being the newfound brothers’ mystery triplet David Kellman, who opened a newspaper to find two identical clones of himself staring back at him. It sounds impossible, but it’s exactly what happened to the three subjects at the heart of Tim Wardle’s unsettling documentary Three Identical Strangers, shown at the FirstOntario Film House as part of the Brock University Film Society series. Separated triplets finding each other through complete coincidence sounds more like a soap opera than reality, but it happened. It nearly had a happy ending, too.
The first block of the film sets you up for that expectation, light-hearted music backing archival footage of the brothers bonding in the ways that they never could as children. Between home movies, reenactments of the boys’ meeting and commentary from those who knew them, it’s hard not to get attached to the newfound family. On top of all this, there are plenty of interview snippets from when the triplets’ feel-good story became a media sensation. In these clips, it seems that the boys are answering the same questions over and over again, like which one is which? Or what do you guys have in common?
The one question no one ever asks why a set of triplets would be separated from each other and adopted to different families, let alone how that’s even possible. It’s almost as if everyone knows the uplifting nature of the story will shatter the moment they do. As a matter of fact, it does: the film goes from heartwarming to heartbreaking with very little warning.
Tim Wardle was not afraid to take a leap down this unimaginably deep rabbit hole, documenting every twist and turn that came up along the way. Sure, this could be said about many documentarians, but rarely does a story have as many layers to unpack as this one does. Even rarer is for every excruciating detail of such a story to be laid out for the viewer in only an hour and a half. Every time you think there’s no way anything new could be unveiled, you receive another punch to the gut without seeing it coming. One tragedy after another strikes these triplets, and Three Identical Strangers showcases it with only empathy for the brothers at its’ core.
While it’s definitely a story that needs to be heard, it’s also one that doesn’t have a proper resolution. This creates an issue for the filmmakers, who had clearly intended the ending of the documentary to be less ambiguous than it is. A few out of place conjectures are edited together and then we cut to credits; what’s worse is that these conjectures don’t seem to have any connection to the facts as the film presents them.
Not only that, but it was unnecessary. The overall story still feels like a complete one thanks to the depths that Three Identical Strangers explores. There are a few subplots coinciding with the main story, including twins separated by the same adoption agency and a journalist who had been following stories like this. There’s more going on as well, but talking about them here would ruin some of the shockers of the third act. Every angle they could have explored the story from was looked at, leading to a strange mix of satisfaction and discomfort. Even with the unnecessary conclusion in place, Three Identical Strangers will still leave audiences with more questions than answers. Questions of mental health, nature vs nurture and how much control we really have over our own lives, to name a few – it’s interesting, but unnerving.
As part of the BUFS season, Three Identical Strangers will be presented for a final time at The Film House on October 25. It’s a must-watch for any documentary fans who like a bit of an existential crisis with their mystery and intrigue.