Three Identical Strangers hits theaters soon. Get your tickets here!
Tim League, founder and CEO of Birth.Movies.Death. parent company Alamo Drafthouse, is a co-founder of NEON.
The myth of the long-lost sibling is a longstanding plot device employed to explore themes such as family, destiny and choice in many genres, the newest being the documentary Three Identical Strangers. The film tells the story of triplets who were reunited at the age of 19 after having been separated as babies and adopted out to three separate families. The drama that a long-lost twin injects into a story has been an undeniable premise that’s typically a recipe for success in Hollywood, from light-hearted comedies such as The Parent Trap to sci-fi adventures like Star Wars. It’s also a plot device that’s been a staple on soap operas for decades. However, in Three Identical Strangers, it quickly becomes apparent that in real life it’s harder to gloss over the darker aspect of separation and potentially long-lasting trauma that follows separating siblings at birth.
“I’ve always wondered, what would it be like if you turned the corner one day and you saw yourself?” remarks journalist Lawrence Wright in the documentary. This “what if” became a reality for Bobby Shafran, David Kellman and Eddy Galland in 1980. The film starts with the unbelievable story that would inspire headlines and sound bites for years to come: When Bobby arrived for his first day at Sullivan County Community College, he received a warmer welcome than he was anticipating from a number of the students who acted as if they’d known him for years. When someone called him Eddy, he realized he was being mistaken for someone else. A friend of Eddy’s then quizzed him on his birth date and adoption agency, drove him down to Long Island and facilitated a life-changing introduction with his long-lost brother. Once the story ran in the newspapers, another sibling, David, saw their picture and tracked down his brothers. The triplets were reunited after 19 years spent apart—though they had all grown up within 100 miles of one another.
Bobby, David and Eddy’s story as it stands here is a fairy tale of the modern era. Their reunion, instant bond and time spent living together and partying in New York City is the happy ending you’d hope for in this situation. However, the reason behind their separation was always a looming unanswered question for their families. The act of separating siblings at birth is morally compromising as it is, and to not inform the adoptive parents of the nature of the adoption only adds to the callousness of the situation.
Typically when this story is presented in Hollywood, the focus is almost always placed on the discovery and the events that follow rather than the reasoning behind the initial separation. For example, in both versions of The Parent Trap, in which two identical twins are separated as babies only to reunite as tweens at summer camp, little to no attention is paid to the reason why they were separated in the first place. Similarly, in the TV show Sister, Sister, separated twins run into each other at a shopping mall, only to later find out that the agency that adopted them out to their parents separated them. In The Parent Trap, it’s explained away that the parents just didn’t want to see the other again, so they each took a twin. In Sister, Sister, it is never addressed or questioned.
Alternatively in Three Identical Strangers, we see an instant bond between three brothers develop upon meeting, and later explore the complexities of how brotherhood works without the basis of having grown up together. The past doesn’t stay in the past for these three men, and the more they explore the circumstances of their unique situation, the more trauma and effects on their mental health is revealed. For example, after they were adopted as babies they would bang their heads against their cribs, later to be surmised as a manifestation of separation anxiety. As the film delves deeper into the reasoning behind the initial separation, as well as the layers of deception and moral quandaries that follow, viewers see how the drama of a Hollywood plot takes its toll on the human psyche.
Mental health is often disregarded or pushed to the side when crafting these kinds of blockbuster films. Often the long-lost twin hook is just the starting point for a film, which then leads to even more contrived plot points in an effort to raise the already high stakes of the story. For example, in the 1988 movie Twins, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito star as twins who were the result of a genetic experiment in which the DNA from six fathers was combined to create the perfect child. When the experiment produces twins, the surprised scientists not only lie to the mother and tell her the twins didn’t survive, but they also separate the twins to study the more “perfect” one as he grows up and drop the other one off at the orphanage to be raised by nuns.
In a day and age where children being forcibly separated from family members is very much a part of the public consciousness, it’s important to see a film confront the true horror that comes with a long-lost sibling premise. In reality, creating this kind of situation doesn’t end up serving a greater purpose, it isn’t merely a good story to tell at parties and it isn’t something that is an easily accepted part of reality. As the film industry begins to hold itself more accountable in terms of racism and sexism, questioning plot devices like the separated-at-birth trope is something to consider if we aim to be more socially conscious of the films produced by Hollywood. Three Identical Strangers is a chilling reminder that the choices we as a society make have long-lasting consequences in the real world.