By  | 

Okay, this is a tad unusual for the frothy, escapist entertainment of Summer. After just a week, it’s time for another venture into the world of documentaries. Last week the film that opened was another “show-biz personality” doc all about the life of WHITNEY Houston, just a few weeks after the box office smash (for a doc) profile of the late Fred Rogers, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? Like those films, this week’s release has been collecting praise and awards at several festivals around the country. And though it touches on the perils of publicity, it’s roots are more in the investigation type of non-fiction film, so much so that it’s no wonder that one of the producers is CNN Films (whose other great recent theatrical releases include LIFE ITSELF and BLACKFISH). This also focuses on universal themes of family, even though the subjects siblings are really THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS.

The film begins with a “talking head” style interview of a middle aged man named Robert “Bobby” Shafran. He tells the off camera interviewer of the remarkable adventure that began when he drove himself to Sullivan Community College in New York state way back in 1980. Arriving to begin his freshman year, Bobby was shocked at the very friendly responce from the student body (“Glad you’re back.” “Good to see you again.”). One lovely coed even kisses him . Could this be the start of a loopy “mistaken identity” college sex farce flick? Bobby’s questions are soon answered by another student’s question: “Why are you here Eddy?”. When Bobby convinces him that he is not Eddy (who flunked out last Spring), the two rush to a phone booth (remember those). Bobby describes the wonder of hearing himself on the other line. Turns out they shared the same birthday: July 12, 1961. Bobby and his new pal hop in his beat-up Volvo and race through the night, a two-hour trek, to meet Eddy. “Like looking in a mirror” says modern day Bobby. Both young men were adopted as babies and knew nothing of the other. Of course the local media jumped on this “miracle”. A reporter from Long Island’s Newsday is the first to relay the remarkable tale. The paper makes its way to another New York town where David Kellman is stunned to see photos of two guys that look just like him. The three meet and become inseperable. This story proves impossible for the media to resist, as they were desperate for “feel good” stories at the time of the seemingly unending Iranian hostage crisis (among other dismal events). The handsome lads become the darlings of the country, as they are interviewed by everyone from Jane Pauley to Tom Brokaw and even Phil Donahue. The three become fixtures of the tacky and tawdry disco scene of the “Big Apple” and even score a cameo in a flick with a future superstar. They eventually open their own restaurant, called “Triplets”, of course, and lived very happily ever after.

Umm, not actually. That’s just the story’s first act. After the reunion, the very upset parents went to confront the board of the Louise Wise agency, a service that facilitates adoptions. The parents are told that the boys were separated because of the difficulty in finding parents that could adopt all three. One father angrily insists that had he known, he certainly would have taken in the boys. the parents are sent back outside, but one heads in to grab his umbrella and see the board members splitting a bottle of “bubbly”, as if they dodged a “bullet”. That’s the first of many mysteries. During their early years, why were the families visited by agency reps who filmed interviews with the lads along with tests (square pegs, Rorschach, etc.)? Was everything carefully planned? How were the families selected? Why was the information withheld? Finally we, and the principals, learn that the glorious reunion somehow happened despite the concentrated efforts of a lauded academic’s research study, the results of which seem to be locked away. Eventually the results of this “social experiment” lead to tragedy and heartbreak.

Director Tim Waddle has put together a thriller just as compelling as anything conceived by most Hollywood screenwriters. He expertly pulls the “rug” right out from under us, with the bouncy, high-spirited tone of the first moments illustrated by a manic collage of TV spots and posed “wacky” news pix, all highlighting the infectious smiles and “Brady Bunch” style perms of the happy new brothers. To heighten the drama, Waddle includes recreations of the stories told by the subjects almost in a point-of-view (POV) style, with the camera just behind or over the shoulder of the fellows, with pop tunes on the soundtrack to set the happy mood (“Walkin’ on Sunshine”). That mood changes abruptly as the search for the truth begins. The parents/agency meeting is set on a dark, stormy night. The triplets begin to look distracted and dour in many of their interviews. The somber score by Paul Saunderson strengthens the tonal shift. Waddle tracks down two of the “research aides” that worked with the youngsters, and like actors explaining how they play villains, they thought there was nothing harmful done to the children ( we hear of how one boy pounded the side of his crib because of separation anxiety). Then there’s the frustration of the brothers as nearly every door leading to the truth is slammed in their faces. Luckily, part of the veil is lifted for them, but it doesn’t make up for the lost eighteen years apart from each other. This is capped by some remarkable footage during the end credits that is simply haunting. THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS is an incredibly powerful tale of the unbreakable bonds of brotherhood. It’ll be tough for the year-end dramas to match this.

4.5 Out of 5

THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS opens everywhere and screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinemas and the Tivoli Theatre

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.