Three Identical Strangers [film review]
Three Identical Strangers is a documentary about a true story that almost seems fake. In 1961, a set of triplets had been separated at birth and adopted out to three different families in the New York City area. None of the families were informed that the baby they adopted were triplets and no one knew of the others until 19 years later, when two of the triplets (Eddy and Bobby) just happened to meet. The news stories that followed their chance meeting and reunion revealed that the ‘separated identical twins’ were actually triplets.
I do want to say that if you want to see the film (which I definitely recommend), the following review does have spoilers and I also want to warn that the film deals with mental health, suicide, and medical ethics.
The documentary covers a long and emotional journey, starting off with how the three found each other and the media frenzy that followed. The film tells the story with interviews, recreations, and film/photos from when the three met. It’s unbelievable to see footage and photos from the 1980s of the triplets, as the three not only look alike but have the same mannerisms and frequently talk the same in interviews. And the occasional recreation (with overlapping real audio from an interview) is done well and manages to avoid being tacky.
While their reunion was initially a happy one for the triplets, their parents were more concerned about why they were separated at birth and why no one was told about the others. While the documentary follows the journey that the triplets took in the years after their reunion, it also looks into why and how the triplets were separated, something that turned out to be a bit more sinister and morally/ethically questionable than originally thought.
- ‘Three Identical Strangers’ is a tragic masterpiece. As a triplet, it hurt to watch. By Justin Kaplan, WBUR
When the parents went to the adoption agency, the now defunct Louise Wise Services, for answers after the reunion, they were told that adopting out a set of triplets all together was just not feasible for the agency. The actual answer is that the triplets, and an unknown amount of twins born in New York around the same time, were all separated at birth and were unknowingly involved in a twin study to look at the effects of nature and nurture. The triplets and their families were all told that the agency was involved in a scientific study but they were told that the study was about adoptive kids, not separated twins and triplets.
The beginning of the film is all about the reunion of the triplets, a joyous occasion for the three. They went on talk shows and were in newspapers, as their story skyrocketed them to a local celebrity status. And while the first part of the film is a happy one, more and more questions start to crop up. Why are only two of the triplets giving contemporary interviews? How and why were the three separated to begin with and why weren’t the families told about the others? Why does something seem off about the adoption agency that adopted them out?
These questions were eventually answered later in the film. Or at least, they were answered as best they could be. There are still so many unanswered questions about the triplets’ separation. Was the study actually about ‘nature versus nurture’ like the researchers claimed? Or was it also about the link between mental illness and genetics? Why were there no formal conclusions? Why wasn’t the study published? Why were all the papers given to Yale after the lead researcher’s death and not to be released until 2066?
While the film starts off as this sweet and wholesome story of the triplets finding each other, it takes twists and turns to share the real story behind this unbelievably true story. ‘Three Identical Strangers’ leaves you wondering about life, family, and scientific/medical ethics. It’s an exceptionally well-made movie that will leave you thinking for days.
Pairs well with:
- Missing and Murdered: Finding Cleo (the second season of the CBC podcast about an indigenous Canadian family trying to find their sister who had been adopted to a family in the US in the 1970s, only to die mysteriously at a young age) (available wherever you listen to podcasts)
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (a book about medical ethics, the tale of HeLa cells, and the woman and family behind them)