‘Three Identical Strangers’ Film Review: Doc Follows Separated Triplets Down Tragic Life Paths

Sundance: The joyous reunion of three brothers eventually gives way to the dark reasons why they were split up in the first place

Three Identical Strangers
Sundance Film Festival

In 1980, a 19-year-old man named Robert Shafran walked on campus for his first day of college. To his bewilderment, the kids greeted him as if they knew him already and were surprised that he was back. It didn’t take long for Robert to figure out that he had an identical twin brother named Eddy about whom he knew nothing. After they met, and it was reported in the press, yet another identical twin brother named David contacted Robert and Eddy.

Director Tim Wardle’s carefully structured and suspenseful documentary “Three Identical Strangers” starts at this point where all the brothers first met, and it mimics the “can you believe it?” tone of their initial press. Robert, Eddy, and David made the rounds of all the talk shows in 1980 and became media celebrities. They also all moved into the same apartment in Manhattan, and they enjoyed some wild times.

The brothers appeared in the movie “Desperately Seeking Susan,” where they stared after Madonna as she walked down the street. When one of them didn’t have health insurance, he pretended to be a brother who did and had his appendix removed. They sowed their wild oats, and they all eventually married women who loved them. They opened a restaurant together called Triplets, and things went well with that for a time. And so at first this seems like a fairly happy story.

But then the brothers began to learn about why they were separated from each other, and the backstory that emerges has so many sinister twists and turns that it becomes mind-boggling. As this movie goes on, and the narrative unfolds, you are likely to be saying to yourself, “Oh my God,” every 10 minutes or so.

“Three Identical Strangers” is the sort of movie that you should ideally see without knowing too much about it or what happens in it. There will be a few spoilers ahead in this review, but this movie contains so many revelations that writing a little about the first few of them will really just be the tip of the iceberg. So proceed with caution until you see the film.

The adoptive parents of the boys were very angry when they found out that they had not been told about the other two identical siblings by the Louise Wise Services adoption agency in New York. The six of them went to the agency to complain in 1980, but they got nowhere. When the parents spoke about a lawsuit, they were discouraged because the agency seemed to have some powerful political connections.

In 1995, the triplets found out that they had been deliberately separated as part of a psychological experiment by Dr. Peter Neubauer, a noted child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who was close with Freud’s daughter Anna. Neubauer’s most notable paper was “The One-Parent Child and His Oedipal Development,” where he argued that the lack of a father figure could do damage. This paper was published in 1960, the year before Neubauer chose to split up the brothers and place them in different homes for observation, with carefully selected parents.

The adoptive parents were told by the Louise Wise agency that they were doing a study of adopted children, and so researchers came to question the boys on a regular basis and treated them as guinea pigs for the purposes of information on child development and on parenting. As “Three Identical Strangers” goes on, we learn more and more about the specific details of this Neubauer study, and what at first looks unethical begins to seem downright cruel and outright destructive.

The triplets find their birth mother and meet her for a drink, and it sounds like she wasn’t a woman they wanted to get to know too well. (In the single photo we see of her from her high school yearbook, she looks exactly like them.) When the brothers find out about several other twins who were separated for the Neubauer study, they begin to realize some of the most disturbing ramifications of what was done to them.

While telling a specific and horrifying real-life story, “Three Identical Strangers” explores the notion of “nature versus nurture” in a way that seems to both confirm and deny the neatness of any possible scientific study of human behavior. We hear Neubauer’s voice only once here, when he is questioned by a journalist. Neubauer says that he broke the twin study off in 1980 because “it got too expensive.”

The results of Neubauer’s study were never published, and the files on it are under seal at Yale University until 2066, presumably because the subjects of the study will have died by then. It is almost certain that Neubauer didn’t publish the results of the study because he knew public outcry against him would have been too much to handle.

Wardle spent five years making “Three Identical Strangers” after several other filmmakers had given up on this subject because they were always hitting a dead end, and so he deserves credit for journalistic doggedness and also for making a documentary that plays like a nerve-jangling thriller.