'Three Identical Strangers' film review: An unbelievable story's even more incredible, unsettling secrets
Every so often a story captivates the nation and vaults into the zeitgeist. Balloon Boy. Baby Jessica. The Miracle on the Hudson. But as suddenly as these stories become water cooler hot topics, they eventually fade into the background. The unbelievable documentary "Three Identical Strangers" (screening at the 44th Seattle International Film Festival) recounts the truly stranger-than-fiction true story of long-lost triplets reunited -- and the story's even more surprising underlying mystery.
In short: Three 19-year-old boys in New York discover they are long-lost siblings separated at birth. After instantly becoming popular and famous, they delve deeper in the mystery of why they were separated - only leading them to grim answers and bleak new questions.
Just the first act alone is too incredible to believe. "Identical Strangers" follows the three young strangers as they shot to national fame. They quickly became the toast of Manhattan, all because their story is the stuff of fiction. A short documentary on this chapter of their lives alone would make for an entertaining and utterly improbable ride. That these three charming men could immediately bond so closely is a wonderful ending - with the "happily ever after" to their preposterous story being their newfound brotherhood. And this is exactly where the 15 minutes of fame typically ends - but this is where a much darker story begins. This documentary shifts from the fun and unbelievable to a truly bizarre and twisted mystery.
"Identical Strangers" is an exercise in compelling storytelling, where an astounding personal interest story slowly evolves into a tantalizing and dark mystery. Director Tim Wardle crafts a fun and engaging first act that seamlessly takes on a sinister twist. As the mystery unfolds and new information is unearthed, initially light-hearted moments take a new, more menacing tone. Wardle engrosses the audience in one happy story, then forces the audience to reconsider everything they have seen as new, troubling information comes to light.
When anyone's "15 minutes of fame" ends, they are still people -- they don't cease to exist just because talk show cameras turn toward the next story du jour. These people still have to lead their lives, which are often upended by incredible events - and this is exactly the space where "Three Identical Strangers" exists. The documentary necessarily addresses the national story of the triplet's chance reunion, however, the strength of the film is its exploration of how that reunion affected the rest of their lives - and perhaps even the lives of many other families. Even as the film focuses on three specific brothers and the events that lead to their separation, "Identical Strangers" touches upon elements of nature versus nurture, and whether the brothers were ever truly free or if their lives have already been written in stone.
Final verdict: "Identical Strangers" instantly grabs the audience with a story too ridiculous to be true, then brilliantly reveals the story's underlying truth is actually even more incredible and shocking.
"Three Identical Strangers" screens at the 44th Seattle International Film Festival. The documentary is rated PG-13 for some mature thematic material and has a running time of 96 minutes.