Last night I walked into the tiny Facets Cinemateque theater to see Mistaken For Strangers. I thought it was just going to be a run-of-the-mill doc following the band around with a bunch of concert footage and some silly behind the scenes antics. Instead I saw a real movie about a man (director Tom Berninger) searching for his place in life and coming to terms with his older brother’s success. There are enough great shots of the band and big laughs to please fans of The National and otherwise, but I think all film lovers will be surprised with how well it works as an interesting narrative feature and documentary.
The story kicks off with Matt Berninger, lead singer of The National, asking his brother Tom to join them on a tour of Europe as a roadie. Tom thinks this is great-he doesn’t get to see his brother that often and he wants to document the tour for a movie. Throughout the movie he’s constantly being told to put the camera down and help with other things. He’s a lifelong screw-up, and it’s interesting to watch him take this great opportunity and continuously make poor decisions about pretty much everything.
He does set each member of the band down for a little Q&A, but these generally end up being silly because Tom has a real Chris Farley complex when he’s asking questions. He stumbles his way through questions about how famous they are, what it’s like playing in front of five thousand people, and the creative process of making a record. Then there are times when he asks things thing, “Who can play guitar faster, you or your brother?,” or “Has my brother ever lost his temper with you?” Errol Morris he is not, but these short sessions usually reveal more about Tom than they do about the band.
Over the course of a few tour stops the film changes from a movie about The National to a film about brothers. The band is made up of two sets of brothers and Matt, so it’s cool that the familial dynamic is something they explored with this movie. Tom and Matt love each other, and get along for the most part. You can see Matt struggle to not yell at Tom when he screws up, and the couple times Matt does lose his temper a bit it seems more out of disappointment than anger.
It’s hard to explain the film, really, because it’s so short it feels like describing any scene is giving too much away. At a brisk 75 minutes, I definitely wanted it to be longer, but Tom Berninger does a great job of carving out a story that comes to a satisfying conclusion. He does get some amazing footage of the band, including a performance of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” that completely changed the way I feel about the song. He also gets Matt doing his usual stage move, and I’ve seen this myself, where he leaves the stage and walks as far back into the audience as he can. Of course, at the filmed show he got all the way out to the lobby of the venue, so that’s new.
If you have a sibling, I think the movie can be a bit more dramatic than if you’re an only child. We always want what’s best for our brothers and sisters, and you can see Tom and Matt are always rooting for each other. I don’t know if Tom has plans to keep making documentaries or do features, but he’s definitely got the passion for it. He’s just one of those lovable goofballs you always want around, so I hope he finds something a little better than the other movies he’s directed (there are a couple of hilarious scenes depicting his prior work).
The movie is only in a very limited number of theaters, so I’m glad I live somewhere that I could see it on the big screen. If you aren’t so lucky you can download Mistaken For Strangers on iTunes or check your video-on-demand listings.