There have been any number of films about the invention of self-identity — about how, as Kurt Vonnegut might put it, people are who they pretend to be. It was a universal phenomenon long before the likes of Jay Gatsby turned it into an American pastime, or the internet made us all into avatars of ourselves; the ability to refract one’s own image is an intrinsic part of the human experience, even (or especially) when it’s expressed through subconscious forces like denial, repression, and personal bias.
Far less common, however, are films that explore the nature and ethics of inventing an identity for someone else; from “Gaslight” to “Memento,” most of the more obvious examples hinge on clear sociopathy or the sort of memory failures that you only tend to see in the movies. And yet, this is something we do to each other all the time in real life, often without malice. From the moment we’re born and our parents begin shaping the world into their own kind of sense, who we are is to some degree inextricable from who we are told that we are. People tend to see themselves through the light that others reflect back at them, and none of us are perfect mirrors — not even identical twins.
It’s hard to imagine a more crystalline look at the suppleness of someone’s self-identity (and the moral dilemma of someone else choosing to overwrite it) than Ed Perkins’ “Tell Me Who I Am,” a documentary so harrowing and horrific that it can only bear to scratch at the surface of its remarkable story. It begins with a terrible accident in the English countryside circa 1982, and the irresistible silver lining that a teenage boy saw wrapped around it.
When twin brothers Alex and Marcus Lewis were 18 years old, the former was involved in a motorcycle crash that left him with severe long-term memory loss, and essentially turned him into a blank slate. It seemed like a godsend for Alex to able to base himself off the mirror-image he saw in his brother — Marcus provided his twin an incredible shortcut back to being whole, and the two siblings became closer than ever as their father grew more distant and their mother was shell-shocked with disbelief. Marcus delighted in filling all of the gaps that he could, reintroducing Alex to their friends and regaling him with second-hand memories of old family trips. Alex even had to be reacquainted with the girl he’d been dating at the time of the accident, and likes to joke that he lost his virginity to the same person twice. He trusted his brother implicitly, as if they were just downloading some old data onto a new phone.
In hindsight, the ominousness of it all is oppressive, and Perkins tells this story with a somber quality that prepares you for the discomforting truths to come. Alex and Marcus are the only voices present in the film, and it’s striking from the start that Perkins isolates them into different spaces; their talking head testimony was recorded separately, and on opposite sides of the same colorless room. Even when the film cuts between the brothers, it’s as if they’re speaking at each other, and not in conversation. The abstract re-enactments through which Perkins illustrates the crash and a handful of other major events are only valuable for how they reinforce the movie’s dire mood; it’s obvious that a crime is waiting to be uncovered beneath all of this light and gentle Oliver Sacks-like intrigue.
It’s also obvious that said crime has something to do with sexual assault, which is as self-evident in a documentary like this as it is painfully secret in real life. Alex, who had no reason to doubt the world as it had been presented to him, didn’t even begin to learn the truth until his mother died when he was in his thirties. That’s when he found the keys that opened the room that contained the box that hid the evidence of the repeated childhood trauma that Marcus had been trying to protect his brother from for more than 15 years. If the person you loved most in this world was magically freed from the worst memories you ever shared together — if their deepest scars were somehow healed overnight — would you choose to readminister those wounds? Would you even have the strength? Or, like Marcus, would you try to share in that gift of oblivion?
What happened, of course, is that Marcus saw himself reflected in Alex as much as Alex saw himself reflected in Marcus. It was inevitable. And when Marcus saw a version of himself who wasn’t burdened by the hell that his mother had visited upon them both, he decided to emulate that as best he could — to follow his brother’s example and will himself into forgetting. The most extraordinary moments of “Tell Me Who I Am” come when Perkins slows the documentary machine down and lets the brothers find their own separate ways through the impossible morass of shame, betrayal, and resentment.
Alex and Marcus co-wrote a book about their experience in 2013, but neither of them had so candidly sorted through the emotional wreckage before Perkins pointed a camera at them, and that shines through in the raw intensity of their confessions. Alex harbors more anger towards his brother for lying than he does to his mother for molesting him (I don’t know who I am,” he pleads), while Marcus struggles with having seen Alex’s second innocence as a lifeline. Their reminiscences are stunning and still fresh with pain, and Perkins’ spare direction is smart not to distract from the words and faces (the men are easy to distinguish thanks to the childlike softness that still hangs around Alex’s eyes).
It all builds to a shattering third act sit-down between the two brothers — both now 54 — that aches with decades of love and heartache. In other circumstances, the climactic meeting could feel unforgivably exploitive, but it seems clear that Alex and Marcus saw the documentary as a conduit for the conversation they’ve always needed to have, and recognized that Perkins could be the intermediary to make it possible. For his part, Perkins seems (understandably) shy about overstepping his role in such a sensitive predicament, or doing anything that might be construed as manipulative.
At times Perkins feels more like a trauma counselor than a filmmaker, and he takes the path of least resistance whenever it becomes at all contradictory to serve both of those masters at once. Nothing about “Tell Me Who I Am” is easy by any stretch of the imagination, but the rush towards reconciliation blows past so many of the brothers’ most nuanced and tightly knotted feelings. “Children accept anything,” Marcus says at one point. “We don’t have the capacity to know it’s wrong.” He’s talking about the trauma he suffered himself, and how ignorance can be wielded against those who are unable to know any better. But you can hear in his voice that, when it came to paving over his brother’s memory loss, Marcus twisted that same logic into an opportunity. Perkins doesn’t probe that idea, or others like it, any deeper than the level at which it’s volunteered to him. As frustrating as that can be to watch, however, it’s fair to imagine that a more curious approach would have made this documentary too hard to watch at all, and perhaps even impossible to make.
“Tell Me Who I Am” is now streaming on Netflix.