At this point, when a movie asks, “What does it mean to be human?” it’s more likely to elicit an eye roll than a chin scratch. Who cares? In a movie theater, being human means a bucket of popcorn and a soda you have to hold with two hands and a two-hour break from Rhonda in Freaking Accounting. The cinema is not the place for philosophy questions. Just show some talking animals or a car chase or one of the Chrises. Nobody’s here to do homework.
The point is, movies have to earn the right to ask those wide-ranging questions about who we are and what we’re doing here, and that’s not easy. Arrival did it a couple years ago. So did Moonlight. Three Billboards tried but missed more than it hit. When a movie swings for an existential pitch and misses, it reeks of pretension and manipulation. So it’s incredible, then that a small-time documentary like Three Identical Strangers not only manages to earn the right to interrogate human truths, but in doing so delivers a dynamite piece of entertainment. You want to leave this movie and tell your friends about it. Not in a preachy way, but in a shoulder-grasping “you’re never going to believe this” way. This movie’s fantastic.
The less that can be spoiled about Three Identical Strangers’ bevy of narrative swerves, the better, so we’ll end this summation about 15 minutes into the movie: A guy arrives at college to find that everyone is mistaking him for another person. Turns out, that person is his long-lost twin. When the story reaches newspapers, the article catches the attention of a nearby family; they have an adopted son who might be No. 3. The triplets are reunited, and in case that wasn’t enough, there’s another 90 minutes of movie left to answer your inevitable follow-up questions: Wait, why were these guys separated in the first place, and why didn’t they know about each other?
That mystery drives the real-life plot of Three Identical Strangers, and while the revelations that follow are all kinds of You’re Kidding Me, the movie is equally interested in spinning those reveals into discussions about the story’s real-world implications. Much is made of the reunited triplets’ startling similarities—they prefer the same cigarettes (and the same women), gesticulate with the same mannerisms and sit with the same posture—in light of their intense contextual differences (each was raised in a different socio-economic household under differing parenting styles).
The age-old psychology debate surrounding nature vs. nurture—is our behavior determined more by genes or by life situation?—is at the center of Three Identical Strangers. The movie is indeed a mystery in part, but it’s also a deep profile of three guys whose likeness and disparateness both carry implications for how we’re supposed to see ourselves. If our upbringing doesn’t have an effect on our behavior, what can be said of free will? If our genetics don’t matter, then is life a giant crapshoot favoring those who luck into the best scenario?
Certainly heady stuff, but what makes Three Identical Strangers one of the best documentaries of the year is how it positions these questions alongside the popcorn-worthy story. You can’t forget about them, but nesting them inside a narrative this compelling makes the questions feel thrilling instead of burdensome. There’s a sense of discovery here, not confinement.
And what an uncommon feeling, for those of belief to be faced with provocative questions and feel propelled and ignited by them rather than attacked or contained. Three Identical Strangers will definitely challenge you—one interviewee in particular makes some stark claims against the notion of choice—but it turns the exercise of existentialism into a Zumba class: snappy, collective and something you want to tell other people about afterward. If only other movies with these kinds of questions provoked similar modes of conversation.
Documentaries are often ignored in theaters because, hey, if you’re going to spend money on a movie it might as well be something beautiful and star-studded and escapist and expensive. Nonfiction usually doesn’t check those boxes. But Three Identical Strangers, aside from its remember-to-close-your-mouth level of shock, can expand your mind about what’s possible in terms of your behavior. It makes you think about your past, your future, your relationships, your what-ifs, your strengths, your weaknesses and how you might or might not change any of them.
But of course, whether you think about any of those things is up to you (or is it?). When the questions feel like bonus material instead of the whole point, movies like Three Identical Strangers become approachable for anyone. You could come away changed, but even if you don’t, the idea of change won’t feel dangerous. That’s how you know a movie isn’t angling for something ulterior; it’s just angling for you.