'Tell Me Who I Am': Film Review

Telluride Film Festival
Gripping and moving, despite some tricksy narrative twists.
10/18/2019

Twin brothers dig deep into their abusive family history in this Netflix-bound documentary from former Oscar nominee Ed Perkins.

A disturbing family memoir that takes a dark detour into nonfiction horror, Tell Me Who I Am marks the feature debut of director Ed Perkins, who earned an Oscar nomination for his short documentary Black Sheep (2018). This remarkable true story is a finely crafted exercise in slow-building suspense, though it works better as a gripping mood piece than as journalistic investigation, its raw confessional style slightly compromised by niggling narrative gaps and dramatic contrivances. Following its world premiere at Telluride and European bow at London Film Festival, Tell Me Who I Am arrives on Netflix on Oct. 18.

The film centers on British identical twins Alex and Marcus Lewis, both of whom are interviewed at length. In 1982, Alex age 18, suffered near-total amnesia following a serious motorcycle crash. On regaining consciousness he recognized only his brother, Marcus, but had no recollection of his mother, Jill, his stepfather, Jack, or any of their shared history. Returning to the family home in rolling countryside south of London, Alex faced the Herculean task of rebuilding his memory banks from scratch, with Marcus patiently supplying each missing piece of the puzzle.

The twins shared an unusual upbringing. Despite living in a grand home, their eccentric mother claimed to be impoverished and forced the boys to sleep in a basic shack away from the main house. They also lived in constant fear of their domineering, emotionally aloof, hot-tempered stepfather. When Jill died of cancer in 1995, Alex noted that Marcus seemed unmoved. As they sorted through her vast hoard of possessions, the brothers discovered their mother had hidden huge stashes of cash, sex toys and creepy photos of her children.

Without getting too deeply into spoilers, Tell Me Who I Am shifts gear midway through into a nightmarish saga of child abuse, pedophilia and long-buried family secrets. Most incredibly, after that fateful motorcycle accident put Marcus in charge of curating his brother's memory, he chose to rewrite their traumatic past, sharing only the most positive aspects and erasing the rest. In the absence of happy stories, he fabricated others in order to preserve his sibling's blissful innocence. Like Jim Carrey's heartbroken anti-hero in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Alex had all his bad memories washed away.

Only at the age of 32, after Jill's death, did Alex finally raise his own suspicions about sexual abuse. Marcus grudgingly confirmed that real horrors had taken place, but insisted on keeping the details from Alex for decades afterward, protecting him in adulthood just as he had done in adolescence. As a key hook for this documentary, it appears that Marcus has finally relented and agreed to share the whole story with Alex on camera.

Perkins crafts Tell Me Who I Am with a strong visual sense, framing onscreen interview segments with archive photos, lightly dramatized flashback scenes, poetic visual motifs and spooky interior shots bathed in ghostly blue light. But all this masterly cinematic mood-building occasionally feels like slick sleight of hand. Given that the brothers already published a memoir about their abusive family history in 2013, also called Tell Me Who I Am, the implication that Alex is only now hearing the full saga is an oddly disingenuous dramatic device. Other salient details, including two younger half-siblings and further abuse victims, are mysteriously absent from the dysfunctional family narrative. Jill remains a frustratingly opaque shadow throughout, her twisted psychosexual behavior never fully scrutinized.

With its slow drip-feed of lurid revelations and tearful onscreen breakdowns, Tell Me Who I Am feels uncomfortably like heart-tugging reality TV at times. This is not to challenge the veracity of the painful events that Perkins chronicles, just the simplistic manner in which he presents them, clearly building toward a redemptive sense of closure that feels more engineered than authentic. In fairness, this is still a gripping true story, told with commendable sensitivity and minimal sensationalism, even if it leaves a few too many questions unanswered.

Venue: London Film Festival
Production company: Lightbox
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Alex Lewis, Marcus Lewis, Kathleen Ray, Andrew Caley, Luke Mulhurn, Thomas Mulhurn
Director: Ed Perkins
Producer: Simon Chinn
Cinematographers: Patrick Smith, Erik Wilson
Editors: David Charap, Andy Worboys
Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
85 minutes