Sundance 2018: Three Identical Strangers

On Film / The Daily — Jan 24, 2018

Deadline’s Patrick Hipes reports that NEON has just picked up North American rights to Three Identical Strangers, while CNN Films retains U.S. broadcast rights.

“Tim Wardle’s documentary looks back at a human-interest story that captivated the world in the early ’80s, when adult triplets separated at birth found each other almost by accident,” writes Noel Murray for the Week. “After the initial hubbub died down, the brothers discovered the disturbing truth about why they were split up, and the revelation spoiled their happy ending. In its challenging final stretch, Three Identical Strangers digs deep into the question of heredity and socialization, asking whether the outline of our lives is inked-in from the moment we’re born.”

“Chronicling the startling history of Robert Shafran, Edward Galland and David Kellman . . . , the film starts out like a jaunty sitcom, featuring three likable lugs with toothy grins who might have stepped off the set of Welcome Back, Kotter,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “They look like they were cloned from Andy Samberg. But as the euphoria of reconnection subsides and disconcerting questions begin to arise, a mystery freighted with disturbing ethical violations unfolds in its place.”

For Dan Callahan, writing for TheWrap, “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 ten minutes or so. . . . 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.”

“I didn’t know the triplets’ story, so I found Strangers engaging in the moment despite a number of serious caveats,” and Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov draws up a list. Some of those items are spoilerish, some not. “All these decisions aren’t dealbreakers on their own, per se, but collectively they speak to a kind of story-rehash filmmaking that doesn’t much make a case for why it should exist, aesthetically or journalistically.”

While Mike D’Angelo grants that this is “an insane story that's well served by a filmed treatment,” Wardle “overreaches with his ‘nurture trumps nature’ conclusion . . . , but that barely matters, because the images are doing the necessary work without any assistance. I defy anyone to consistently and correctly identify which brother is which in the early stills . . . , while nobody could possibly mistake Robert and David today, even for an instant. That's the truly profound story here, conveyed in a whisper.”

For Stephen Saito, this is that “rare nonfiction film that can devastate and entertain in equal measure.”

IndieWire’s Eric Kohn notes that the film’s “most jarring development comes with a final, disturbing pronouncement that suggests this next-level drama has only just begun.”

Update, 1/28: “On this film,” Wardle tells Filmmaker, “the struggle between chaos and order was exacerbated by our physical distance from the contributors; we were a UK-based team working on a US story, which had a significant present tense narrative fraught with considerable journalistic and legal challenges. . . . However, in the end our physical distance from the story was a blessing because it forced us to be incredibly disciplined about who, what and when we filmed.”

More from Kevin Fallon (Daily Beast), Fionnuala Halligan (Screen), Daniel Schindel (Film Stage), and Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert.com).

Sundance 2018 Index. For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.