Three Identical Strangers

Movie review by
Samara Meyer, Common Sense Media
Three Identical Strangers Movie Poster Image
Incredible family story raises big questions in complex doc.
  • PG-13
  • 2018
  • 96 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Emphasis on love between siblings and the importance of supportive parents. Discusses adoption without stigma or judgment. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

The brothers display empathy, sensitivity toward each other and others in their situation. They talk honestly about their troubled childhood, express regret for their mistakes but accept outcome of their choices. Their relationships are complicated, but they prioritize their similarities over differences. Positive, accurate depictions of Jewish traditions, family values. 

Violence

Mention of one of the brothers' alleged involvement in a murder (which he says is untrue). Major focus on serious mental health issues and institutionalization, discussion of one brother's tragic suicide. Some talk of a father harshly disciplining his children. 

Sex

Talk about the brothers having the same taste in women; a brief scene depicts ogling a woman on the street as a comical moment. One brother refers to their biological mother's pregnancy as "a prom night knock-up." 

Language

One of the main subjects refers to his car as "the Old Bitch" within the first minute. Infrequent use of "crap." One brother says "Nazi s--t" during an upsetting moment. 

Consumerism

Several references to Marlboro cigarettes. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults talk about "partying" at a young age and unhealthy drinking habits. Cigarette smoking is mentioned several times but never shown. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Three Identical Strangers is a documentary that tells the amazing story of three identical male triplets who reunited as young adults after being separated at birth. The first part of the film paints an optimistic picture of the brothers' joy in finding each other and their immediate connection. But as the details unfold, it becomes clear that this miraculous, heartwarming coincidence is the result of much darker events, which have major consequences for the triplets' lives. Expect occasional swearing, including "bitch," "crap," and "s--t," as well as a few suggestive references and mentions of "partying" and smoking. A bigger concern for parents may be the constant talk of the siblings being kept apart, serious mental illness, and psychological tests being performed on children -- as well as a frank discussion of suicide. The film delves into the conflict between science and ethics, and it also conveys the importance of empathy and sensitivity to others' needs.

 

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What's the story?

When 19-year-old Bobby Shafran arrived at his upstate New York community college in 1980, he had no idea he was setting in motion the first of the many hard-to-believe true events that are at the center of THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS. At first, Bobby didn't think much of the overly friendly students asking about his summer and welcoming him back to school -- that is, until they started calling him by the wrong name. Bobby's confusion deepened when another student approached him and told Bobby about his uncanny resemblance to a young man named Eddy who'd left school the previous year. Bobby came to a shocking conclusion: He had an identical twin. After they reunited, Eddy and Bobby's story became even more extraordinary: A third brother, David, came forward soon after the news broke. The trio became an overnight sensation -- making the rounds on the talk show circuit, wearing matching outfits in public, and starting a novelty triplets-themed restaurant in New York City. But while the brothers were distracted by their newfound fame and kinship, their parents grew suspicious of the adoption agency that had separated the boys in the first place. As the triplets’ different family stories come into focus, their uplifting tale of brotherhood unravels into tragedy and mystery, revealing the secretive figures who arranged their lives since birth and the age-old debate they sought to settle: nature vs. nurture.

Is it any good?

Although it's sometimes a little slow and predictable, this intriguing documentary excels in its relentless attention to detail, which will keep viewers watching and waiting for more. With its well-developed subjects, Three Identical Strangers gives depth to a conspiracy of mind-boggling proportions. The re-enactments of events throughout the film are particularly compelling, helping to bring some of the most sinister parts of this incredible story to life. But at its heart, the movie's real value lies in its ability to encourage viewers to ask deep, nuanced questions about society and human nature. Difficult topics like nature vs. nurture, human suffering for the sake of scientific discovery, Jewish-American identity struggles after WWII, and mental illness are presented in a very accessible way. That said, however, the documentary takes a pretty obvious stance on these matters by focusing heavily on the brothers' emotional experiences and, at times, seems to skimp on providing objective information, which will undoubtedly impact viewers' perceptions of the complex topics it's tackling.

And while interviews with other sets of twins who were affected by these events help illustrate the story's wider implications, they distract from telling the less appealing aspects of the triplets' lives and leave viewers with more questions than answers. Some might even interpret the film's conclusions as coming dangerously close to aligning with an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. But overall, this is a worthwhile film about an astounding series of events that raises important questions about family, free will, and the ethics of scientific research.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about adoption and different types of family structures. Does being biologically related to someone automatically make them family? Why or why not? Did Three Identical Strangers make you think about family in a new or different way?

  • What does the word "ethical" mean? Why do ethics matter? How can we act ethically in our own lives? 

  • Talk about bias in filmmaking and the intent of documentaries: to inform, entertain, inspire, or persuade. Which of those apply to Three Identical Strangers? How does filmmaker Tim Wardle portray the brothers and what they went through? What point do you think the filmmaker is trying to make? 

  • How do the brothers demonstrate empathy in the movie? Why is that an important character strength?

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