Tim Wardle’s 2018 Sundance award-winning documentary tells the real life stranger-than-fiction tale of a set of triplets reunited after being separated shortly after birth, adopted into three different yet closely located families. It was just a matter of time before these boys “bumped into” each other. That day came in 1980. They were 19 years old and coincidentally, Bobby enrolled in the same community college that his then-unknown brother Eddy had attended the year before. Things quickly gained momentum and the twins were reunited and became a national headline. Shortly after, a third brother was identified, David, and the triplets were a television and print sensation.
This sounds like an unlikely fairytale, but there is a much darker side to the story. On the surface, it’s a beautiful tale, one of happenstance, however, as the young men delved more deeply into the circumstances behind their adoptions, it became twisted and sinister… an unethical human experiment.
Wardle eloquently uses interviews with Bobby and David, both telling their perspectives of what happened, recounting memories of their youth, their troubles, and their happy reunion. Wardle then intertwines re-enactments of various situations along with actual television footage, of which there is a lot, to seamlessly stitch together an unbelievable tapestry of not just these men’s lives, but perhaps countless others who were adopted through the Louise Wise Adoption Agency in New York City.
It’s a gripping tale that seems inconceivable; sets of children who were intentionally broken apart and placed in homes which were thoroughly researched and manipulated for the benefit of research. Dr. Peter B. Neubauer was at the helm of this project and we see through the eyes of Bobby and David how he has negatively impacted these men. Locating other sets of twins adopted from this agency and “enrolled” in the project, Wardle shows that the impact isn’t just with the triplets. Even more disturbing is the interview from Neubauer’s intern/assistant during 1968 as he shares his views and knowledge. It’s not just a need to know the answer to the age-old question of nature versus nurture, but it’s the moralistic and ethical boundaries that should never be crossed. Never.
“Three Identical Strangers” hit way too close to home for me. I’m from New York and adopted in 1964 at the age of 4 months from an orphanage and watching this film put more pieces of my own puzzle on the table before me. Visiting surrounding areas of my hometown, I frequently get mistaken for someone else. Do I have a twin? It’s something I’ve always wondered, but now, I also wonder if Neubauer had other assistants and continued the research in other locations of NY. As an adoptee, this film was eye-opening and devastating. And as a critic, the film is visually and intellectually compelling as the story unfolds like a mystery.
Wardle’s “Three Identical Strangers” is a documentary reeling into the realm of a mystery. It’s absolutely spellbinding. The crazy coincidence of finding a twin, happily reunited and then finding another to become long-lost triplets is beautiful…but the beauty soon dissipates into a chasm of darkness. As it raises more questions for those of us who were adopted, particularly in the NY area, it’s also a film for those who love to be entertained and enlightened by stranger-than-fiction tales.
”Three Identical Strangers” opens in limited release on June 29 and then wider on July 6. Chicagoans can see this amazing film at the Music Box Theatre on July 6. https://www.musicboxtheatre.com/