One of the signs that True/False is a well-curated film festival is the balance the programmers bring to the lineup of films. They make space for challenging films that will alienate many audience members (see The Task), but also provide plenty of crowd pleasers. On its surface, Three Identical Strangers falls squarely into the latter camp as a slick, fast paced doc with plenty of twists and turns to keep everyone awake. But beneath its shiny exterior lies something a little deeper, and director Tim Wardle consistently makes smart choices that strengthen his telling of an already fantastic tale.
“I wouldn’t believe it if it weren’t my story.” Interview subjects in Three Identical Strangers keep sounding this refrain, and with good reason. In 1980, 19-year-old Robert Schafran drove to his first day of community college, only to find everyone greeting him like an old friend. He quickly discovered that a doppelgänger had attended the same school the year before; a double that turned out to be his long lost twin, Eddy. When newspapers picked up on the story, a third child realized he, too, was an identical sibling, and Robert, Eddie, and David became talk show sensations, reveling both in their new found fame and the sibling love they had been missing since all three were adopted by different families at the age of six months.
For the first quarter of the film, as this wild tale plays out, Wardle keeps the action light and frothy, with lots of humorous moments and buoyant energy. Gradually, though, the fairy tale begins to morph into a nightmare, as the triplets discover more and more disturbing details about the circumstances of their natal separation. Without delving into details (you really want to see this one cold), I’ll say that the film builds effectively from crazy personal anecdote to deeply troubling social commentary.
Along the way, Wardle builds his story effectively through subtle touches. Lots of the archival footage gets repeated several times, and clips that appear funny in their initial context become increasingly sinister as they get replayed. So gradually as to be imperceptible, the film also shifts perspectives, with the emotional weight of the story starting out centered on one brother, but shifting to another by the end. Reflecting on the film, it becomes obvious that it has been structured around absence as much as presence: the absence of a shared history that should have been there, along with, well, other things.
The least interesting aspect of Three Identical Strangers is its gesture toward universal application – there’s lots of talk about nature vs. nurture, but the film ends up adopting a rather facile attitude toward the divide, and the final line of the film (which suggests that we all might be one chance encounter away from bumping into a long lost twin) comes off as glib and silly given what has come before. But on the whole the film deftly balances the personal and the social, wringing both dramatic pathos and ethical outrage out of what could have been just another shaggy dog story.