“Three Identical Strangers”
Directed by Tim Wardle
The summer of ’18 will go down as the Year of the Wide Release Documentary. When was the last time you remember four and a half docs concurrently playing at the neighborhood Cineplex? Well a couple in my city are currently showcasing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, “Whitney”, “RGB” and the hybrid doc, “American Animals”. And, of course, “Three Identical Strangers”, a documentary so dense and so affecting, that I couldn’t speak for a good sixty minutes or so after the credits rolled. In fact, I had to be asked to leave the theater, as I sat there, quietly sobbing in my seat, utterly unaware the lights had come up and the theater was being cleaned (apparently I picked a bad week to titrate off my anti-depressants).
Tim Wardle’s piece is journalistic-based documentary film-making executed at such a high level, that it’s difficult to even know how to discuss it. It’s viewpoint keeps expanding, while always maintaining a razor-sharp focus. Your connection to the subjects grow and grow. Their emotions are so empathically driven, that you lose yourself in the telling of the tale in a more immersive way than any doc I’ve seen in some time. To be sure, had this film come out last year, it would have literally run away with the Oscar (not that it matters, except as a reminder that there are already more phenomenal documentary features being made in 2018 than in the whole of 2017).
So how DO I talk about this film? Well, most will say it’s about nature vs. nurture…which it, no doubt, is. But it’s also about the roots of the Cult of Celebrity. It’s about mental illness and how and if it’s affected by multi-generational transference. It’s about the morality of science and research. It’s about the wonders and beauty of those genomic DNA strands we have no control over. But most of all, it’s about familial connection and the myriad ways we take it for granted.
If that sounds like too much for a movie that runs a little over ninety minutes, I’d normally agree with you – in fact, I’d most likely roll my eyes. But Wardle has found a story whose intrigue grows and swirls…expanding like kudzu, everything connected, and each new twist and revelation has you sitting even more forward in your seat, or turning away in horror. In the theater where I screened it, the woman behind me said “hmm” after almost every line of the film…each one expertly mirroring the emotion coming from the moment on screen. Normally this would drive me up a wall, but all she was doing was externally confirming what I was internalizing myself.
Now…to be fair, I grew up in Long Island in the early eighties, and the phenomenon that is the jumping off point for the film was simply massive news when I was a sophomore in high school. I remember every article so vividly, and, like the rest of New York (and to some extent, the rest of the country), I wanted to know everything there was to know about these miracle suburban Jewish kids from Long Island and Scarsdale. So, I must allow for simple nostalgia to play at least a small part in my instant connection to the film – especially as I attended a rare screening of the long-forgotten New Wave concert film, “Urgh! A Music War!” the night before, a film I saw upon its original release at exactly the same time as the triplet story was breaking – so my head was certainly back in my New York adolescence. But, man, that “ownership” of time and place I felt early in the film gets jerked out of one’s hands pretty quickly and soon becomes a universal experience.
There is an obscure 1971 Sergio Leone film called…well…many things…but in the US it was released as “Duck, You Sucker” with James Coburn and Rod Steiger. It’s about the Mexican Revolution and an ex-pat IRA explosives expert. I remember the first time I saw a VHS copy of it. Every fifteen minutes or so I would exclaim, “but wait…there’s MORE?!” And not about the length, but about the myriad themes displayed in the film, and how they cascaded over me so easily…in a way that, until “Once Upon A Time In America”, Leone had not done before. “Three Identical Strangers” is the doc equivalent…it keeps getting deeper and deeper and denser and denser, all while remaining in the initial world of the film. I mention this because it is director, Tim Wardle’s THEATRICAL FEATURE DEBUT! I can only think that his experience as a television series producer has helped him hone his editing skills…distilling the film to its most essential bits. It really is a masterwork.
And while there are no actors or big production qualities to mention (other than the phenomenal work of editor Michael Harte), I would be utterly remiss not to mention the film’s composer, Paul Saunderson, a relative unknown artist amongst American audiences (his credits in the UK are numerous and go back a decade). The music, like every visual, is extremely specific, achingly placed and never intrusive. It also happens to be lovely music. I am desperate to get ahold of it and if the powers that be at NEON or CNN Films somehow see this, I implore you to make it available!
So there you go. Considering how few films for non-superhero fans are out there this summer, you must do your mind the favor of going to see this as soon as possible. And, I might add, I think it is one of the few non-environmental/wilderness docs that must be viewed in a theater. Why? Because we are so used to witnessing people who have become celebrities for doing nothing, that watching this on a television will simply equate the triplets rise to fame with something akin to vapid Kardashian ratings, hits and likes. No, in 1980, celebrity had not yet been ascribed without an actual talent attached…and to experience how big a sensation they were at the time, I believe it must be viewed in a manner that dwarfs the current medium used for such things, ie, the phone or the computer screen.
I’ve added the trailer, BUT WATCH AT YOUR OWN RISK! THERE ARE SPOILERS! I’m very glad I saw the film without seeing the trailer first and I suggest you do so, as well.
Written on 7/18/2018