With its offbeat charm and unexpected poignancy, Tom Berninger’s film, “Mistaken for Strangers,” is not your average rock documentary. The film follows the indie rock band The National as they embark on their 2010 tour. Berninger, younger brother of lead signer Matt Berninger, directs and stars in the film. Touching and revealing, “Mistaken for Strangers” provides an amusing look at what it means to be bound by family ties.
The film opens with the band preparing to head on a yearlong international tour. Tom signs on to work as a roadie while simultaneously documenting the tour. His insider’s perspective allows him to capture the highs and lows of life on the road. Unfortunately, this very perspective also causes him to become a bit of a pest to both the band and its management. When he is not asking awkward and intrusive interview questions, he is giving ridiculous staging instructions to unexpectedly compliant band members. His antics and many slipups cause his work ethic to be constantly scrutinized by the band’s management. Though he is repeatedly asked to stop filming, he persists in an attempt to complete his project.
As the film progress, documenting the tour takes a backseat to the unpacking of Tom and Matt’s complicated relationship. The audience watches as the two navigate a nine-year age difference and dissimilar personalities. Matt, self-assured, intense, and successful, appears to be the antithesis of easygoing but undisciplined younger brother Tom. Their fraternal dynamic is marked by the strain Matt’s fame has put on their relationship, and Tom often finds himself standing in his brother’s shadow.
“Mistaken for Strangers” is oddly affecting. It is lighthearted and yet deeply sincere. Its subjects speak with incredible candor. In a particularly revealing scene, a misunderstood and alienated Tom retreats to his hometown of Cincinnati and interviews his mother and father who provide insights that only parents can. These low-key scenes are interwoven and juxtaposed with footage from the band’s live performances, footage that depicts the surreal nature of life as a rock star.
Comprised of handheld camera footage and impromptu interviews, “Mistaken for Strangers” is free of pretention. Many of the scenes are rough and uncut, with minor editing. Music by The National serves as the film’s soundtrack, along with melodic instrumentals used to underscore particular scenes. The well-timed, deadpan humor contributes to the film’s overall light mood.
Fast-paced and energetic, “Mistaken for Strangers” is a celebration of difference and family. It is a candid look into the sibling dynamic. Despite the unique challenges that the brothers face, the film’s themes of familial solidarity and personal persistence are relatable making it a definite must-see.