Film Review: Three Identical Strangers

An engrossing true story of triplets separated at birth in a cruel scientific experiment, this gripping documentary is marred only by the filmmaker’s over-manipulation of viewers’ emotions.
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A gripping documentary about a deceived set of triplets, filmmaker Tim Wardle’s Three Identical Strangers would be more stimulating if it didn’t so forcefully promote its emotional point of view. The film contains all the elements of compelling drama, yet every step of the way Wardle signals how we are supposed to feel, demanding one specific response when multiple or nuanced reactions could be equally valid.

The story kicks off in 1980, when Bobby arrives on campus for the first day of his freshman year at Sullivan County Community College in upstate New York. He is astonished by greetings from numerous strangers who appear to know him very well. As the fast-paced storytelling proceeds, we quickly learn that Bobby is one of a set of identical triplets who were separated at birth and adopted by families representing three different socioeconomic classes. We hear from friends, family members, and journalists who covered the sensational story when the men—previously unaware of each other’s existence—met for the first time at age 19. Wardle is expert at dishing out the right amount of information at exactly the right time and engrosses us from the get-go. But we soon grow tired of listening to everyone exclaim how “amazing” this all is. We yearn to hear a wider range of reactions.

The triplets instantly became inseparable friends and pop-culture celebrities, spotted regularly on television talk shows and in the trendy New York City nightlife scene. In 1987, they opened Triplets Roumanian Steakhouse in downtown Manhattan. Much is made of how the media adored the threesome, and we are permitted to find them nothing but delightful as they reveal their uncanny similarities. Despite radically different upbringings, all smoke Marlboros, were wrestlers, have an affinity for older women, and gesture, look and comment with spooky sameness. But they also shared a history of psychological problems.

In 1995, the triplets discovered they had been kept in the dark about their involvement in a disturbing scientific study concerning “nature versus nurture.” The film’s tone suddenly grows dark, signaling a sinister interpretation, as it unveils this startling new information. The boys were adopted from Louise Wise Services, a New York City-based adoption agency placing Jewish children with Jewish families. The triplets’ adoptive parents knew nothing about any other siblings and were told that the frequent tests their child was required to undergo were part of a routine child-development study. So as not to spoil Wardle’s crafty unfolding of the story, I’ll reveal no further details.

Ultimately, the documentary insists we feel appalled upon realizing the triplets were unknowingly used as subjects for research that may have severely harmed them. As the use of twins and multiples in scientific studies was a known practice, one wishes Wardle had included background about such research to allow for, perhaps, more complicated responses to the triplets’ experiences.

Too tightly focused on generating outrage, the documentary sheds little light on the actual research in which the triplets were involved, a suspiciously secret Twin Study designed by Dr. Peter Neubauer, who died in 2008. What was its purpose? Who funded it? What was the connection to the Louise Wise adoption agency? The two researchers interviewed onscreen were only tangentially involved in Neubauer’s study and say nothing terribly enlightening. The results of the research were never published. Why? The data rest in a restricted archive at Yale University, not to be opened until 2065. Scientists, psychologists and adoptive-services practitioners have undoubtedly formed hypotheses about this mysterious study. What do they think? Rather than working so hard to steer viewers’ emotional reactions, Wardle could have trusted in the provocativeness of his material and endeavored to provide broader context for this entrancing tale.

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