If you asked Matt Berninger what his younger brother, Tom Berninger, thinks of indie rock, he’d tell you it straight: “he thinks indie rock is pretentious bullshit.” Which is a bit of a problem, because Matt is the lead singer of beloved indie band The National and Tom is about to go on tour with The National to capture a documentary about, well, The National. Will Tom change his mind about indie rock? Probably not, but he might just change his mind about just about everything else.
The basic plot of Berninger’s Mistaken for Strangers is almost eerily movie-ready. The National is, as one journalist puts it, a band of brothers – a group composed of the Devendorfs (Scott and Bryan) and the Dessners (Aaron and Bryce, who also happen to be twins, just for good measure), along with lead singer Matt – and while Tom is ostensibly coming on tour to help out with basic roadie duties, he’s actually there to make a movie, but he’s really there to reconnect with his brother.
As far as rock docs go, Mistaken for Strangers is very much its own beast – it is almost immediately dead funny, laced through with situational humor, wacky everyday mistakes, and enough perplexed facial expressions to populate a Christopher Guest film. Tom, shiftless and disorganized, is a supreme goofball who stumbles and fumbles his way through both his actual roadie gig (even with the benefit of precise instructions from the band’s dedicated tour manager) and his self-appointed role as band documentarian (his interviews run the gamut between awkwardly invasive and profoundly weird). The band, despite being as accommodating as they could possibly be to the interloper, are quickly weary of Tom’s shtick, and his well-meaning personality and good heart can’t always make up for it.
Mistaken for Strangers may be a hoot to watch (and it is, it really is), but we still laugh and teeter at the screen while sympathizing with how nutty and awry things are going for the people actually living it. As if being a member of a touring rock band wasn’t back-breaking enough, why not throw a doofus younger brother with a camera into the mix?
Of course, the film eventually takes on a darker cast, thanks to Tom’s continued failures and Matt’s refusal to cow to his younger brother. The riff between the Berningers is obvious from the film’s first frames, and the real task at hand for both the boys in particular and Mistaken for Strangers at large is to heal that divide, no matter how impossible it frequently feels (in case it’s not obvious by now, while Mistaken for Strangers is a documentary about The National, it’s also not really a documentary about The National). The juxtaposition between the two is occasionally heavy-handed (on a particularly bad night for Tom, we find Matt performing a stellar show, surrounded by adoring fans, while Tom gets drunk alone), but the reality of their situation still rings true. Fortunately for everyone involved, Mistaken for Strangers finds its footing in humor and good nature, and it’s a thoroughly feel-good rock documentary with massive audience appeal, National fans or not.
The Upside: Fierce and funny, humorous and heartfelt, Mistaken for Strangers is a thoroughly enjoyable trip through the ups and downs of not only rock n’ roll fame, but of the basics of brotherhood. Oh, and there’s music, too.
The Downside: For a film that relies so heavily on the ineptitude of its director and ostensible star, Mistaken for Strangers zings and sings along so well that it can be jarring – Tom can’t really be this out of wack, right? It’s a strangely disconcerting problem for any film to have, but it’s a minor quibble for something as generally great as Mistaken for Strangers.
On the Side: The film takes its title from a song by the band with the same name, whose lyrics you can read HERE.