‘Tell Me Who I Am’: Inside the Most Jaw-Dropping Documentary of the Year
Premiering Oct. 18 on Netflix, the film explores an identical twin brother who loses his memory following an accident—and the dark secrets that he comes to learn about his life.
In 1982, 18-year-old Alex Lewis was involved in a motorcycle accident that left him in a coma. When he awakened, he recognized his identical twin brother Marcus but literally no one else—including his mother, who was naturally horrified by this development. As Alex puts it, there was a blank, black slate where his memories of himself, his family and his life should have been. All that he knew was that Marcus was his sibling, and someone he could trust. And trust he did, allowing Marcus—over the next decade-plus—to help rebuild the life he’d lost.
Tell Me Who I Am is the story of Alex, and Marcus, and their shared connection—one forged by birth, strengthened by tragedy, and then hopelessly damaged by secrets and lies. Premiering on Netflix on Oct. 18, it’s a saga about the way in which memories define us; the corrosiveness of burying the ugly past, and the freedom that comes from confronting it head-on; and the means by which loved ones shape our reality, and thus can exploit their position in ways both merciful and cruel, self-serving and altruistic. It’s a heart-rending film that understands the complexities of life, and one that, in the hands of director Ed Perkins, is as narratively moving as it is aesthetically exceptional.
For Alex, the weeks and months following his emergence from his coma were predictably confusing, given that he didn’t recall his home, his mates, or the rituals that dictated his day-to-day existence in the expansive suburban England home where he resided with Marcus (the two sharing a bedroom) and his mother and father. Beginning at the intellectual level of an adolescent, Alex needed Marcus to teach him how to brush his teeth, to tie his shoes, to find his clothes, and to ride a bike—the last of which Perkins conveys, before Alex can say it out loud, via one of countless cutaways to dramatic recreations filmed from Alex’s POV and cast in soft colors that match archival Lewis family photos. With a nimble touch, Tell Me Who I Am employs such staged moments (set to Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ distressed score) to not only complement Alex and Marcus’ interview-relayed comments, but to express the fragmented tumultuousness of Alex’s state of mind.
Alex’s reacclimatization also involved learning about his mother and father, the former a charismatic 6-foot-tall woman with a big laugh, giant feet, and an outsized personality, and the latter a cold, nasty individual who didn’t even visit his injured son in the hospital. Alex bought whatever Marcus sold him about his parents, just as he believed his brother’s stories about their happy childhood, replete with vacations that were corroborated by the few carefully-selected photographs shown to him. With nothing to go on but Marcus’ word and the situation in which he found himself, Alex even accepted the unique rules governing his household: no going upstairs or into his father’s private areas; no house keys given to kids; no eating with mom and dad; and an arrangement by which the boys lived out in a shed, separate from the main quarters.
(Some Spoilers Below)
In that regard, Tell Me Who I Am reveals “normality” to be a construct designed by those in power; the same holds for truth, as Alex realized upon his mother’s death. Clearing out their house, the two struck upon some unnerving discoveries: wads of money stuffed into jars and sewn into curtains; a bathroom cabinet filled with sex toys; and a locked cupboard-within-a-cupboard in his mother’s room that contained a nude photo of Alex and Marcus that had been cut off at their necks. When Alex, who thought he and his sibling shared no secrets, asked if they had been sexually abused as kids, Marcus responded in the affirmative—and then said no more.
For the next twenty years, largely spent in each other’s personal and professional company, that silence remained between Marcus and Alex, lingering and festering in a manner almost as damaging to Alex as the explosive revelation that the idyllic life his brother had recounted to him was a happy-times-only fabrication. Tell Me Who I Am, however, is hardly a one-sided affair; split into three acts (one focused on each brother, and one centered on both), it spends as much time understanding Marcus’ motivations as Alex’s ordeal. Convinced he was giving his brother a “gift” of liberation by erasing the nightmare of their childhood, Marcus sought to transform the resurrected Alex through erasure. And though he remains sure that his decision was noble, he also confesses to tremendous guilt over not subsequently coming clean about the specific horrors they endured—a course of action he embarked upon because, by creating a false reality for his brother, he also created one for himself, burying his own horrific memories beneath layers of falsehoods.
Tell Me Who I Am thus becomes a portrait of trauma—and how it steals from you, and then makes you steal from yourself and those closest to you in order to survive. And then, in its last third, it proves a treatise on how such efforts are unsustainable if one wishes to become whole, and move forward. Having been interviewed apart for its initial two chapters, Alex and Marcus are compelled at film’s conclusion to face each other across a table, with a tearful Marcus terrified of addressing the elephant in the room and Alex equally apprehensive about finally knowing the information he’s sought for so long. It’s rare that one is afforded the opportunity to witness such a monumental coming-clean moment in real time, and even rarer to see it handled with the grace and empathy that it is here.
Whether absolute healing is ever really possible is the question that hovers over Tell Me Who I Am up to and through its poignant conclusion. But as expressed by a closing, silent first-person shot that glides out of the gates of the Lewis residence, escape—from misery, deception, self-delusion and shame—is attainable, especially when one can count on a true brother-in-arms.