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« Big Beautiful Losers | Main | Welcome the Academy's Class of 2018! »
Tuesday
Jun262018

Doc Corner: 'Three Identical Strangers'

by Glenn Dunks

“Truth is stranger than fiction”, nudge, wink, geddit? It’s fairly common that that old chestnut of a phrase makes its way into writings about documentaries as more and more filmakers uncover strange but true stories that then make their way into cinemas and onto streaming services. Crazy! Amazing! Insane! Shook! Whatever. Sometimes it's justified (Hi Tickled!) and then there’s Three Identical Strangers. A film that would almost certainly be a farce if invented in the mind of a screenwriter. There’s no way such a story could play as straight drama. It’s just too nutty. It is crazy and amazing and insane and I was shook.

Three Identical Strangers starts the way somebody telling this story might. Have you heard of the one of three brothers, identical triplets, who were separated at birth? That's where we begin...

Two of them discover one another purely by the coincidence of attending the same college, while the third reads about their story in the local paper. They are Bobby, Eddy and David and the sense of unfathomable disbelief of that time is captured with a wonderful light-hearted tone right from the start of Tim Wardle’s film.

Three Identical Strangers leans heavily on the general atmosphere of gee-whiz amazement that surrounded the boys and their story for themselves as well as the public at large. This sense of “wow!” has been briskly edited by Michael Harte to whisk us into a state of almost frenzied disbelief -- you can’t do anything but laugh with it. It throws its timeline of facts at us so fast we're as discombulated as the brothers. There’s the recreations of curly mop-haired twentysomethings acting like detectives, the talk show appearances, the brother that sounds just like Rodney Dangerfield, the visits to Studio 54, the business ventures, and even the cameo in a Madonna movie.

Bobby, Eddy and David on the set of 'Desperately Seeking Susan' with Madonna

As it turns out, none of that is what makes this story interesting. To tell what does would be to spoil the twists and turns that this remarkable tale takes. But what I will say is that that relaxed and buoyant atmosphere tone serves the back half extremely well. As somebody who had not heard any of this before, it became a curious phenomenon to sit and watch a film and slowly have the realities begin to click into place. I spoke to several people after my screening who all had a different moment at which they noticed the gears shift and that’s a tricky manoeuvre to achieve successfully in a documentary. Once again editor Michael Harte should consider himself proud for not giving too much away too early, despite not hiding things for the sake of narrative manipulation.

Three Identical Strangers easily could have been a five-part Netflix docu-series, stringing out every surprise reveal to 20 minutes like Evil Genius. I thought as well of Errol Morris’ Wormwood, which struggled to retain my interest across four episodes despite a true story every bit as fantastical as Three Identical Strangers. Wardle’s film certainly looks like a Netflix production; its visuals are crisp and clean if nonetheless unadventurously framed with interviews\. It will ultimately play well on the small screen, but witnessing the brothers’ story unfold in a packed festival audience was a wonder unto itself where audience members would gasp or laugh or exclaim “oh my god!” at various intervals, which gives the film a sort of cinematic potency that no amount of fancy camerawork could ever achieve. It's a relief seeing a filmmaker use economy like this.

Ultimately Three Identical Strangers becomes much more than just a potentially frivolous movie about three brothers discovering each other. I admired the film for delicately handling its themes when it could have easily just sensationalized them. The full story is riveting and bizarre, but ultimately its the deep sense of empathy for these men that ultimately drives the documentary's success.

Release: Neon is opening the film in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco this weekend. Hopefully they are flushed with enough cash from I, Tonya to send this wider.

Oscar Chances: A few of these more popular titles typically find their way onto the Oscar shortlist even if they seem out of the Academy’s usual scope. I can definitely see it placing there and potentially going all the way to a nomination if its successful at the box office.

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Reader Comments (5)

This sounds fascinating and any Madonna connected true story is fine by me

June 26, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I wanted to see this at SFF but I missed out :( Is it getting distribution in Australia Glenn?

June 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEz

Ez, sadly I have no information about that. I thought there was a Madman logo before it, but I see that logo so often at festivals that it may have just been a mirage as I can't find any news about it online.

June 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

No worries, thanks for your response.

June 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEz

So I finally saw this. Good stuff. I do think the film was uneccessarily evasive about some early stuff but it does offer quite a kaboom as it goes because it's just hard to see where it's going... partially because of all the disbelief that it instills along the way -- how is any of this happening???

August 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

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