by Alvin G. Burstein
This is a powerhouse film, deeply stirring emotionally, and raising profound questions about morality and the nature of truth.
Three Identical Strangers is an indie film by Neon/CNN, produced by Tim Wardle. It won raves at this summer’s Sundance Film Festival, and is now beginning general release. I will do my best to outline how it achieves its impact while avoiding spoilers that would dilute its impact.
It begins with one of the three identical twins that are its focus addressing the camera, documentary style. He describes to the viewer his arrival for his freshman year on campus. Puzzled by the warmth and familiarity with which he is greeted, he shortly learns he is being taken for another student who had attended the year before, but had not returned. A buddy of that predecessor realizes that the newcomer must be an identical twin, and immediately barrels the twins into a meeting. The publicity around the surprising encounter leads a third identical triplet to emerge.
What ensues is an account of how it happened that, at six months of age, these male triplets had been placed by a Jewish adoption agency with three different sets of parents and of their lives subsequent to the reunion.
It emerges that they were subjects of a research project conducted by the noted child psychoanalyst, Peter Neubauer, who wanted to study the effects of varying parenting on similar children, and who had arranged with the agency to facilitate his study of identical twins—and triplets—with different families.
Either by design or intentionally, the three adoptive families differ, with a focus on fathers that is clear, though not explicit. That of the triplet that opens the film, Bobby, is middle class. The father, described as very warm, runs a small retail store. Eddy, his brother, is placed in a different setting. His father is a teacher, described as stern and demanding. The third triplet, David, has a new family headed by prosperous but very busy physician.
The film documents the boys’ lives subsequent to the astonishing and joyful reunion with an artful mix of narration, photos, home movies and re-enactment. The three become media celebrities, diving into a 60’s farrago of highlife and hijinks.
The documentation includes contemporary interviews with some of those originally involved—surviving members of the families, Neubauer’s former research assistants and Neubauer himself—burnishing the authority of the re-enactments. But some of the reconstructions, for example a celebratory toasting by the adoption agency staff, seem doubtful.
As the film goes on, the mood darkens and the emotional reaction of the three brothers to what they have learned becomes more complicated. In addition, the very striking physical similarity of the three brothers develops a subtle psychological counterpoint.
A crucial part of the film’s depth lies in questions about nature vs. nurture. Another issue is that of authenticity and the nature of truth. The film raises questions about Neubauer’s motives for not publishing this study. The film makes no allusion to the 1960’s furor about the Tuskegee study of the course of untreated syphilis and the Willowbrook study of infant hepatitis. Those studies were castigated for failing to involve consent from the subjects. Those familiar with the psychoanalyst’s work know that he sought to contextualize the view that maternal failures—remember the 1950’s shibboleth about refrigerator mothers and autism—with an exploration of paternal contributions. Arguably an important question. But had he obtained informed consent?
And I will end with a combination paradox and teaser. Bobby’s father, about whom the triplets clustered as young adults, had a Yiddish nickname, “Bubeleh”. It means “Little Grandmother.”