When Three Identical Strangers begins, a present-day version of one of the film's three primary subjects tells the tale of arriving in college, only to be bewildered as countless people on campus believe they recognize him, but call him by someone else's name. In short order, Eddie discovered he had an identical twin neither he nor his adoptive parents ever knew about, named Bobby. They wind up with their picture in the paper, which leads them to . . . you guessed it! A third identical brother named David.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg in this, one of the most astonishing documentaries I have ever seen. "The truth is stranger than fiction," indeed. Except, to be fair, whether it's true or not, how a story is told is the key to whether it's a good one. Director Tim Wardle clearly knows how to tell a story.
Granted, there are a few moments in Three Identical Strangers that are transparently staged, and I don't just mean the re-enactments -- which, as far as typical documentary re-enactments go, are done quite well. And these are details that someone like me, who sees far more movies than most people and am thus tune into certain elements that most won't care about, is more apt to notice. I'm not sure what need there is for us to see a few seconds of an interview subject staring pensively out her living room window, but given the overall impact of this film, it hardly matters. You can only fill the screen with so many talking heads. Then again, if what they're talking about is compelling enough, these little flourishes of dressing aren't needed.
How provocative and layered the whole story of this set of biological triplets is, cannot be understated. Without ever being explicit about it or spoon-feeding the viewer with overt conceptual ideas, it has a whole lot to say about adoption, the influence of class, and perhaps most importantly, scientific ethics. I'm not sure Wardle even intended this, but it occurred to me to wonder at one point if we as the audience were inadvertently continuing participation in the very scientific study the people in this film decried.
I'm already bordering on spoiler territory with that, and to a particularly unusual degree for the documentary genre, the less you know about where the story is going, the better. The details of triplets accidentally discovering each other at the age of nineteen is astonishing enough, and that's truly not even the half of it. There are twists you won't possibly see coming.
I will say that Three Identical Strangers starts off very light and fun, all about the twins' delight in discovering each other, and the details of their adoption backstory get progressively dark and sinister from there. This is not just fun from beginning to end, and it eventually moves into tragedy and some very justifiable anger. But also, questions of morality and ethics, and whether or not some of the details exist in a gray area. The subjects have a clear idea in their mind as far as that goes. But are they right?
This may be the best thing about the film itself. Although it gets slightly oversimplified with its pondering of the question of nature vs. nurture, it allows for consideration of all sorts of other complicated issues, without bringing them up directly. There's a very superficial way this film can be consumed; it could also be the subject of academic study -- both the story it presents as well as how the film presents it. There's so much to mine here, it's hard to know where to begin.
So, I'll leave the rest up to you. If nothing else, Three Identical Strangers is essential viewing.