Documentary tells dark tale of triplets separated at birth

This undated photo shows Eddy Galland, from left, David Kellman and Bobby Shafran, three brothers who learned at age 19 that they had been separated at birth. 

“Three Identical Strangers” is a documentary that takes one of the more surprising turns I’ve seen in a movie in recent memory. It starts out as the sort of lighthearted, upbeat story that gets shared a lot on social media, the kind of thing Upworthy used to post.

And then it becomes a devastating tragedy.

The film starts with Robert Shafran recounting the time, back in 1980, when he was a new student arriving at a state college in upstate New York. On his first day, he was surprised that other students greeted him like an old friend, slapping him on the back and saying, “Welcome back!” Only he had never been there before, and didn’t know any of them.

A classmate took one look at Robert and asked him immediately if he was adopted. It turned out another student named Eddy Galland had been at the school the year before and was the spitting image of Robert. They drove to Eddy’s home on Long Island, and when Robert and Eddy met, each felt they were looking into a mirror. Same broad smile, same wrestler’s build. They were twins who had been separated at birth and adopted by different families.

The story made the New York Post, and then took an even more fantastic turn. It turned out there was a third identical brother, David Kellman, as well. When all three brothers met, it was like they had known each other their whole lives; one aunt fondly remembers them “wrestling on the ground like puppies.”

It was a feel-good story that got the brothers on daytime talk shows and the “Today” show, and they loved the spotlight, playing up their similarities to audiences. Even though they had been raised in different families — one working class, one middle class, one affluent — the resemblances were uncanny. The triplets enjoyed their time in the spotlight, and then the media moved on to the next story.

And then somebody asked the question: Why did the adoption agency separate three triplets and place them with different families, without telling any of the families about the other two brothers?

The answer turned out to be more nefarious than anyone expected, and what had been a feel-good story took a darker turn. The brothers (along with New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright) started looking into the adoption agency’s motives. As they recount their investigation, the film unfolds like a puzzle, and seemingly innocuous details (like the fact that all three boys had older sisters who were also adopted) turn out to have chilling resonance in retrospect.

Director Tim Wardle reveals his mystery in cunning fashion, holding back key details until they can make the maximum dramatic impact. He lets two of the brothers, Robert and David, tell their stories directly into the camera, making us feel both the joy they shared at discovering each other, and the pain and anger that came later as they learned why they were separated.

“Three Identical Strangers” touches on big questions about nature versus nurture and the ethics of adoption and scientific research. But it’s ultimately an intimate family story about three good-hearted brothers discovering that the lives they thought they were leading were a lie.

Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.