THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS
Neon/ CNN Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Tim Wardle
Screenwriter: Tim Wardle
Cast: Eddy Galland, David Kellman, Robert Shafran
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 5/2/18
Opens: June 29, 2018
If you’ve ever checked out PETA.org, the website of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, you may have encountered a Q&A on the subject of dairy cows. In a letter to the editor, one inquires whether dairy cows are treated badly, and would get the answer that they probably suffer more than cows raised for meat. Since they are kept pregnant all the time in order to produce milk meant for the animals’ offspring, the farmers forcibly separate the newborn calves, raise them for veal in the most atrocious ways, and cause the mama cow to have separate anxiety that finds her depressed for days, maybe weeks. This is not unusual, as other species whose offspring are separated will react in the same way. We human beings are members of the animal kingdom and can understand that if a baby is separated from its mother, its mama would probably grieve. But think of what might happen if a woman has triplets, spending months living and sleeping together, then wrested apart. This could have profound effects on the tots that could last for a lifetime.
“Three Identical Strangers” is a documentary that projects what happens when triplets are manipulated by science without consent. The particular case gets an emotiona treatment by film-maker Tim Wardle, whose “One Killer Punch” explores the phenomenon of one punch kill. The biological mother, who is not part of the film, couldn’t give a hoot about the infants’ separation from her since her triplets were the result of a one-night stand after a prom. But a scientist, Dr. Peter Neubauer, had connections to a Jewish adoption agency, the Louise Wise Services, and plotted an experiment that would last at least a decade. Chances are that some people, eager to adopt, would be more than willing to take on all three infants. Instead, the agency deliberate farmed them out to three separate families in New York City suburbs to knock out yet another experiment in the nature vs. nurture controversy. Without telling each of the adoptive parents that their bundle of joy is part of identical triplets, the Louise Wise Services sent out one to the family of an affluent doctor, one to a blue collar family, and a third to a teacher. During the years of the experiment, each child was given a set of psychological experiments to discover whether their genes or their upbringing would be more responsible for their behavior, though you can probably guess that this was a 50-50 proposition without putting the people through a cruel experiment whose results were not even published and are sealed for decades to come.
It was almost inevitable that the triplets would meet, given that the three were living within 100 miles of one another, and sure enough, when at the age of 19, Bobby Shafran drove his jalopy to Sullivan County Community College only to be patted on the back by smiling students as though everyone on campus knew him, greeting him with a “Hi Eddy!” Can you imagine having this happen to you, like something from The Twilight Zone? The real Eddy had left the college the year before. Happily someone asked Bobby if he was adopted, Eddy and Bobby reunited in a Long Island party, and the third sib, David, seeing photos of his brothers, joined the party.
Throughout the first part of the doc, the brothers acted like puppies who knew each other forever. Their story made even the New York Times, they were cheered on TV by Phil Donohue, and arms around one another day after day, they had some catching up to do to remove the blot of their initial separation anxiety. They started a restaurant in New York’s SoHo together, visited the night clubs, and enjoyed a roller coaster ride that would seem never to stop.
This is not an altogether feel-good documentary, however. Like so many dramedy offerings on TV and in the movies, happiness gives way to tragedy. So far, the boys are dealt only with how alike they were. They smoked the same cigarettes, dated the same women, older ones preferred by all, sat in the same way on the interview chairs, walked alike. But their differences were noted. One brother was reserved, another sociable and extroverted, the third somewhere in the middle. The more interesting segment of the film was about a tragedy that would strike, one that put into eternal question whether the unhappy events were caused by some feature of the mother—who did not take part at all—or by upbringings among different classes of parents.
It turns out that Dr. Peter Neubauer, the scientist-director of the Child Development Center, was a Holocaust survivor who was probably influenced by the atrocious experiments on twins by the loathsome Dr. Mengele, yet perhaps it’s ironic that a man with Neubauer’s unfortunate life experiences in Europe would conduct such a secretive project, deliberately separating the three infants, and passing them off as individuals to the folks who adopted them.
A French woman in the audience of the screening I attended notes that such experiments have been going on all over Europe. Perhaps this visceral look at one type of abuse by science will put an end to such sub rosa proceedings, particularly since the nature-nurture controversy will always be with us and unlikely to be decided by corrupt practices such as these.
Rated PG-13. 96 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+