Oh brother, who art I?
Imagine losing your memories and then having to rely on someone else to help recreate them. Now imagine that person is your identical twin, and that they’ve got a good reason for being selective in their retelling.
And we don’t mean they’re selective in the minor ways we all subtly – and potentially inadvertently – reshape narratives when we regale others with them. We’re talking major and deliberate omissions. They’re doing it to protect you, but it’s destined to all come out eventually, and will totally upend your worldview in the process.
How you remind me
The Lewis twins, Alex and Marcus, grow up in an upper-middle-class English country house. At age 18, Alex has a motorcycle accident that results in him lying comatose in a hospital bed. When he comes out of the coma, Alex doesn’t remember anything other than his brother’s name, and the fact that he’s his brother.
Alex can’t recall his own name, who his parents are, or even what his girlfriend’s face looks like. So it’s up to Marcus to answer his ever-more specific questions and help his brother reconstruct not just his sense of other people, but of himself.
It’s a huge responsibility to put on Marcus, but he does his best to guide his brother back from mental adolescence to some semblance of adulthood.
“Normal is what you know. And normal is what your family is,” Alex tells us, early on.
First, the pair figure out a system to downplay how serious Alex’s ailment is by having briefings before parties or other social events where Marcus gives his brother a synopsis of each attendee so he can pretend to remember them.
Then there’s the problem of omissions. By becoming a blank slate, Alex is unburdened by any unpleasantness that may lurk in his familial history … and Marcus is disinclined to disillusion him. “Normal is what you know. And normal is what your family is,” Alex tells us, early on. Except when you don’t know what abnormal is, that is.
It’s clear pretty early on that something strange is afoot. First, the boys live in a shed rather than in the main house with their parents. Moreover, they’re not allowed in certain parts of the house. Then there are other peculiarities, like the family’s relative lack of photographs.
This perhaps explains why Alex becomes fascinated with photographs – the few he does find of events passed, and the heaps he takes in the wake of his accident in case he loses his memory again.
Even this is a little sinister, though, because as Alex points out, “We take photos of happy times … we don’t take photos at funerals”.
A macabre obsession
We’d be doing Tell Me Who I Am a massive disservice if we gave away anything more about the plot, but what you should know is that it’s more intriguing than it is creepy, and ultimately more encouraging than it is horrific. As a documentary, it works extremely well, too. The combination of contemporary interview footage with obvious recreations is handled perfectly and never makes the retelling seem either flippant or sensationalist.
Alex’s obsession with specifics becomes more macabre as the three acts unfold, but in the process the documentary also becomes a timely meditation on trust, family bonds, sibling relationships and the nature of both memory and trust. It’s strange and unsettling stuff, but it’s also beautifully told. You may need some tissues.