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Movie review: Family of ‘Strangers’

Published August 30. 2018 12:07PM

“Three Identical Strangers” is a fascinating documentary film that raises more questions than it provides answers.

David Kellman, Eddy Galland and Bobby Shafran are identical triplets adopted soon after their birth by three separate families.

Through a serendipitous occurrence, two of the triplets meet. Then, all three triplets meet.

The documentary follows the triplets, their families and friends from gleeful reunion of the boys at age 19, to tabloid headline and TV talk show fame, to tragedy after the apparent suicide of Eddy Galland in 1995.

Bobby Shafran, a lawyer, lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.

David Kellman, an insurance agent, lives in New Jersey with his wife and two children.

“Three Identical Strangers” uses home movies, archival footage, re-creations of incidents in the lives of the three brothers, and interviews with two of the brothers, their friends, family, and those who may have been responsible for the separation of the boys.

The triplets, born on Long Island, New York, and put up for adoption by their mother about six months after their birth in 1961, were allegedly intentionally placed in three types of socio-economic homes: lower middle class, middle class and upper middle class.

The Child Development Center, New York City, run by Dr. Peter Neubauer, worked with the now out-of-business Louise Wise Adoption Agency to place the triplets.

The Jewish Board of Guardians had helped establish the Child Development Center in 1947 in New York City. The center later merged with the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services.

The triplets, and apparently others in the study, were tracked by researchers, who visited their homes, gave them cognitive-learning tests and filmed their responses for Neubauer’s research project, which apparently also included approximately 60 sets of twins, in what was said to be a nature-nurture study of human development. The National Institute of Mental Health reportedly helped fund the study, believed to have concluded in 1980 at the time of the triplets’ media blitz.

Neubauer died in 2008. His research was bequeathed to the Yale University Library, where it is sealed until 2066.

An intern, who worked with Neubauer on the study, and a Neubauer office secretary, are interviewed in “Three Identical Strangers,” as is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright, who wrote a New Yorker magazine article and the book, “Twins: And What They Tell Us About Who We Are” (1999), about the study and the triplets.

Twins Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, subject of the book, “Identical Strangers” (2007), also said to be separated at birth as part of the Neubauer study, are also interviewed in “Three Identical Strangers.” A documentary film, “The Twinning Reaction” (2017), is about other siblings involved in the study.

The discovery of the triplets happened in 1980 at Sullivan County Community College in upstate New York when one brother, on his first day of fall classes, was greeted as a friend by students, having mistaken him for his brother, who attended the same college the previous year. A newspaper article about the two brothers’ meeting was seen by the third brother.

Sooner than you can say “The Phil Donahue Show,” the triplets became media darlings, living it up at the Studio 54 disco in New York City, having a cameo in Madonna’s first feature movie, “Desperately Seeking Susan” (1985), and opening a restaurant, Triplets (1987-2000), in New York City.

While “Three Identical Strangers” by director Tim Wardle (in his theatrical motion-picture debut; TV’s “One Killer Punch,” 2016) is worth seeing, it’s troubling on a number of levels, and not only for the story itself, but for what it glosses over or doesn’t reveal.

Before he met his siblings, Shafran was on probation after having pleaded guilty to charges in the murder of an elderly woman in a 1978 robbery of her diamond rings. The incident is mentioned in the film as an aside.

Two of the triplets were reportedly institutionalized during their teens for mental illness, another point briefly mentioned.

One of the brothers is interviewed about a meeting with his birth mother. Perhaps she declined to be interviewed for the film or was deceased during the film’s production. However, standard practice in journalism is that when an interview is sought and denied, or not pursued, this needs to be stated.

A brief statement at the film’s conclusion claims that 10,000 redacted pages of the Neubauer study were released to the surviving brothers. This required more than a footnote.

Clips of the triplets being tested as children are shown during the end credits. How this footage was obtained needed explanation, or should have been included earlier in the film, rather than the time-consuming and clumsy re-enactments of these and other events that clutter the film.

“Thee Identical Strangers” is guilty, if guilty is the correct word, of the same emotional abuse that the triplets and their families were subjected to: lack of knowledge, facts and the truth.

Furthermore, “Three Identical Strangers” raises red flags for documentary films in general. As soon as a filmmaker sets up the camera, chooses the questions to ask, and edits the answers chosen, as well as organizes footage, images and music, the narrative strays further and further from the facts. In this era of “fake news,” beware the “fake documentary.”

“Three Identical Strangers” is the feel-good, feel-bad documentary of 2018. Look for it as an Oscar documentary feature film contender, along with “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

“Three Identical Strangers,” MPAA Rated PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. Parents are urged to be cautious. Some material may be inappropriate for pre-teenagers.) for some mature thematic material; Genre: Documentary; Run time: 1 hr., 36 mins. Distributed by Neon.

Credit Readers Anonymous: “Three Identical Strangers” includes portions of the songs, “Kids in America” (1981) by Kim Wilde and Billy Joel’s “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” (1977).

Box Office, Aug. 24: “Crazy Rich Asians” again dominated cultural pundits’ talk shows and the weekend box office, continuing at No. 1 two weeks in a row, with $25 million, $76.8 million, two weeks, keeping “The Meg” at No. 2 with $13 million, $105.3 million, three weeks, and Melissa McCarthy and her potty-mouthed puppets in “The Happytime Murders” yammering at No. 3, opening with only $10 million.

4. “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” continued in place, $8 million, $193.9 million, five weeks. 5. “Disney’s Christopher Robin” walked up one slot, $6.3 million, $77.6 million, four weeks. 6. “Mile 22” drove down three slots, $6 million, $25.1 million, two weeks. 7. ”Alpha” dropped two slots, $5.6 million, $20.1 million, two weeks. 8. “BlacKkKlansman” dropped another slot, $5.6 million, $32 million, three weeks. 9. “A-X-L,” $2.9 million, opening. 10. “Slender Man” thinned out two slots, $2.7 million, $25.4 million, three weeks.

Unreel, Aug. 31:

“Kin,” PG-13: Jonathan Baker and Josh Baker direct Carrie Coon, James Franco, Zoë Kravitz and Dennis Quaid in the science-fiction action film. A mysterious weapon protects a former prisoner and his teenage brother who are on the run.

“Operation Finale,” PG-13: Chris Weitz directs Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Mélanie Laurent and Lior Raz in the biography drama. Secret agents track down a Nazi officer who devised the Holocaust.

Two popcorn boxes out of five popcorn boxes.

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