Their spectacular story scored them a slew of newspaper headlines. Their charming chemistry made them coveted guests on the talk show circuit, the toast of New York’s nightclub scene, and quirky celebrity cameos in Desperately Seeking Susan who were handpicked by Madonna herself. They were three strapping young men, with broad smiles, meaty hands, curly hair, and the same damn face. Robert “Bobby” Shafran, David Kellman, and Eddy Galland were triplets separated at birth, adopted into three different families, and 19 years later reunited by chance. Their reunion was a warm and wonderful story that captured the public’s curiosity and hearts. But what happened next was dark and disturbing, and is revealed in the fascinating and frustrating documentary Three Identical Strangers.
Directed by Tim Wardle, this intriguing doc begins at a community college in the Catskills in 1980. Riding along in a beat-up Volvo he lovingly referred to as “the old bitch,” 19-year-old Bobby was cruising onto the campus for the first time. Any nerves he had about making friends transformed to relief and then confusion as the other students greeted him warmly, with hellos, hugs, and even kisses. Weirdly, some called him Eddy, many acted like they knew him. Then one stunned student asked if he was adopted, adding he knew Bobby’s “double.” From there, Bobby raced to Long Island to meet his long-lost brother Eddy. Once their astounding story hit the news, David would look at a paper and see two strangers wearing his face. Imagine learning you not only had a twin you didn’t know existed, but triplets! Three Identical Strangers allows us into the visceral rush of adrenaline and joy of this incredible discovery.
The first act features jaunty re-enactments with some iffy wigs to paint the scene. Here’s Bobby’s car riding up a remote road. Bobby rushing to a phone booth with a friend of Eddy’s, eager for an explanation. Later, the film leans more on family photos, home movies, and archival clips from a variety of television interviews with the likes of Phil Donahue. But what really makes this stranger-than-fiction tale come alive is the undeniable verve of the people who lived it. We begin with an interview of Bobby, a man with a smile that promises you mischief and one hell of a story. Nearly 40 years later, he spins the tale of that life-changing day with a contagious enthusiasm. Soon after, David enters, matching his brother in a breezy affability, smirking humor, and playful swagger. It’s easy to see how the world fell for a triple-dose of these sexy Jewish studs, who gamely played to our fascination. But as you get caught up in the whirlwind of how they met, fell in fraternal bliss, and became famous, there’s an absence that yawns bigger and bigger, foretelling disaster. Where is Eddy?
Bobby talks about the good times with a sparkle in his eye so bright it lights up the screen. But when talk turns to the dark times that smile crumbles. His eyes go dull. All joy and vitality melts from his face, and our hearts sink with his expression. I wanted to run and flee. I wanted to leave the story as the newspapers and talk shows did: brothers reunited, charming, loving, happily ever after. But Three Identical Strangers dives into the troubling reality behind the cheerful headlines. It’s not just about what happened to Eddy, but also about the gnawing question of why these boys were separated in the first place. Their parents recount a gallingly unsatisfying meeting with the illustrious adoption agency who’d done it. Then, an unnerving revelation comes their way, courtesy of an investigative journalist out of Austin, Texas. From there, the brothers and their families discover something calculated, conspiratorial, and twisted was at play in their separation.
The revelations keep coming like breath-snatching body blows. But as Wardle chases down the why for the triplets’ traumatizing separation, his doc derails. The lively anecdotes of bonding, partying, and celebrity run-ins give way to heartbreaking recollections of rage, regret, and mourning. Families are urged to speculate about motivations from people they barely knew. Dubious experts are called in to weigh in on the triplets’ childhoods and the controversial cause of their separation. Through this, debates spark up about nature versus nurture. But neither side is thoroughly explored as much as bandied about like buzzwords. The more Wardle aims to provide a satisfactory answer for the triplets and his film, the more I became convinced there just isn’t one. 40 years later, the man responsible may have taken the answers to the grave with him. And even if he hasn’t, what could Bobby and David possibly hear that would assuage their pain of childhoods lived within 100 miles of each other, but totally ignorant of each others’ existences?
Instead of answers, Wardle raises more and more questions. He introduces a woman who shows off photos of herself with the Clintons and Obamas, but doesn’t explain who she is outside of her barely-there connection to the triplets. So it’s hard to gauge how we’re meant to respond to her perspective. The adopted sisters of all of the men are left out of the story, which becomes increasingly curious as it unfolds. And though much of the movie is spent playing and replaying clips of the triplets acting like carbon copies, a third act sequence argues they are in fact very different. Yet Wardle gives us little to no details of how Eddy, Bobby, and David are different. It’s a pronouncement we’re meant to accept without explanation or evidence. Perhaps the documentarian didn’t want to pry any further into the personal lives of his subjects. Perhaps the sisters declined to be interviewed. But whatever the reasons, these choices leave a hole, one the film aims to ignore just as it does the seeming futility of this quest for a satisfying answer to why the twins were separated.
I apologize for the vexing vagueness of the above. But despite its messy final act, Three Identical Strangers is best seen with little background going in. Wardle’s indulgence in diving into psychological speculation is a frustration. But at its core, this is a story about three incredible brothers and the families that grew around them. Just as it’s a joy to see Bobby reminisce about his “old bitch” and his found brother, it’s a hoot to see a family friend gently explain the nickname of David’s devoted dad, Bubula. It’s a deep delight to hear a triplet’s spry aunt smiles crisply recalling their first three-way reunion at her home, describing them like “puppies wrestling on the floor,” noting, they needed no introduction. “They belonged to each other,” she remembers with a wistful grin. And we feel lucky to be there with her, welcomed in like a long lost member of the family.
Three Identical Strangers gets lost in its quest for answers. But along the way it introduces audiences into a complicated, colorful and richly charismatic family that they’ll be grateful to know. Through them we are all invited to experience the shock, the joy, the thrills of the triplets tale, and then share in their grief and outrage. The film may offer no closure. Yet in it, there is a glorious humanity and beauty that’s not to be missed.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com