The film was directed by Tom Berninger, Matt Berninger’s brother, who loves metal and considers indie music “pretentious bullshit.”
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The opening film at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival was, ostensibly, “that movie about the National”. In actuality, the documentary, Mistaken for Strangers, isn’t exactly focused on the National. The band serves more as a backdrop for what may be the funniest, most meta music movie since Spinal Tap. The true leading man is National frontman Matt Berninger’s younger brother, Tom, the film’s director and subject.
Tom is a familiar character: a metalhead partier/slacker, who’s still living at home in Cincinnati and figuring things out. He’s not in awe of the National; at one point, he comments to drummer Bryan Devendorf that he seems “metal” while the other members of the band are so “coffeehouse.” Matt invites Tom to join the band’s High Violet tour as a roadie, where he gets this idea to film a documentary about the band while he’s traveling the world with them.
It’s easy to see how this will go. Tom becomes more and more invested in filming every waking hour instead of the menial tasks assigned to him. He eventually leaves the tour on not-great terms, the documentary half-baked. It’s later completed once Matt and his wife invite Tom to move into their Brooklyn home and reside in their daughter’s playroom.
Matt, whose patience throughout is admirable, loses it at a few key moments, including one scene in which he questions why cereal and milk have been spilled on the floor of a hotel bathroom. He’s serious, but it’s the stuff of buddy comedies, something characters in a Judd Apatow movie would bicker over. Scenes like this one could not have been written to be more comedic. But it doesn’t feel like Tom is playing a role, despite the fact that he’s exactly what one would expect of a rock star’s brother living in his shadow.
Mistaken for Strangers flips the narrative of the National, a band considered underdogs for years during their slow build toward success with each subsequent album. In this film, Matt is framed as the Golden Boy. From Tom’s perspective, Matt has always been his cool older brother, the type of guy who’s good at everything he tries.
Seeing the film in the context of Tribeca’s opening night, it’s as though the plotline is still in motion. This is an underdog story, so to witness Tom Berninger being introduced by Robert DeNiro at a big, famous film festival is a happy ending.
The film does not wallow in the typical brand of rock-doc inner-band turmoil. There’s not as much footage of the National in the studio recording upcoming album Trouble Will Find Me as fans might want, but there is insight into how this band functions.
At one point, one of the Dessner brothers describes Matt’s role in the band as being more demanding than the others– the weight of entertaining vs. simply performing is on him every night. Matt is, no doubt, a frontman who’s enjoyable to watch, not just to hear, but his off-stage presence is much more low-key. He’s portrayed as a generally likeable guy, as are the Dessner and Devendorf brothers, who play along amicably with Tom’s disorganized interviews that all eventually devolve into a conversation about his brother.
Those who don’t understand the moving parts that accompany a year-long international tour may find the perspective of the movie insightful, but they’re just as likely to learn about the documentary filmmaking process as they are about the music business. At its core, Mistaken for Strangers is a documentary about making a documentary, and second to that, a deeply relatable film exploring sibling dynamics.