If you’re going into Mistaken for Strangers looking for a rockumentary/tour documentary on The National, you’re in for disappointment. The film was directed by Tom Berninger, the younger brother of the band’s frontman Matt Berninger. Tom’s not very good at making music docs even though he’s trying as hard as he can.
Mistaken for Strangers is more about Tom Berninger trying to make the documentary Mistaken for Strangers, and how the process dredges up a lot of unresolved personal issues about sibling jealousy and the fear of failure.
Oddly, this is also the strength of Mistaken for Strangers.
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Mistaken for Strangers
Director: Tom Berninger
Release Date: TBD
Back when Mistaken for Strangers was announced as the opening night film for the Tribeca Film Festival, the film was compared to Dig! and American Movie, and I can see a lot of the latter in it. Tom Berninger has a little bit of Mark Borchardt in him: a guy who’s known only hard luck who’s just trying to finish up a film. Tom’s actually made some movies of his own that Mark probably would admire. One of them’s about a caveman going on a gory rampage, which we get to see a little bit of in all its bloody and grunting glory.
Tom’s asked to work as roadie for The National during their tour to support the album High Violet. It’s a gig he’s lucky to snag since he’s in a rut in life — single, barely employed, listless. Tom brings along a camera and thinks it’d be a good idea to make a documentary on the band. As pointed out at the beginning, The National is comprised of two sets of brothers (guitarists Aaron & Bryce Dessner and bassist and drummer Scott & Bryan Devendorf) and Matt. There’s a strange sort of symmetry created by bringing Tom along even though he’s backstage rather than on stage.
Tom has certain expectations about the rock star lifestyle that he hopes to experience — partying, partying, more partying — but a good amount of the tension in the film comes from Tom realizing that those rock star fantasies aren’t true. Given, Tom’s more into 80s metal, which has a reputation for Bacchanalian excess backstage, so his expectations were much different. At indie rock shows, not so much. It’s more like hanging out at a friend’s apartment, but Werner Herzog shows up as a guest. Tom’s fantasy of being a beloved rockumentarian doesn’t go as well as he’d hoped either. His primary duty is as a roadie, but he keeps acting like he’s the tour’s official videographer.
As a documentarian, Tom’s somewhat inept but in an almost adorable way; as an interviewer, he’s a little like Chris Farley when he did the Chris Farley Show sketches on Saturday Night Live. The questions tend to be more awkward than enlightening, and his tone seems a mix of self-deprecating and inquisitive. It’s as if Tom is making this all up as he goes along, which isn’t so far from the truth. As the doc takes greater shape throughout the course of the film, the questions that Tom asks reveal a lot more about what’s really on his mind and what’s been nagging him ever since the beginning of the project.
One elephant in the room: envy. Matt’s nine years older and a rock star of some renown; people call him a genius pretty regularly, and his creativity is continually reinforced by everyone who talks or writes about him. Tom seems to be just getting by, and no one really cares much about him or what he does. In a moment of sibling resentment, Tom says to Matt that he’s frustrated that people think the only reason he has a job as a roadie is because he’s the lead singer’s little brother. I think it’s more denial than obliviousness, but people cling hard to things that they have when they don’t have much else.
Mistaken for Strangers is a documentary that really took shape through the editing. I imagine Tom looking through all the footage he shot and wondering what the hell he’d make of it all since he didn’t really have a plan going in. He does have a lot of awkward intro shots of the band members, though. I imagine that had things just fallen into place the way Tom has hoped, Mistaken for Strangers would have been a standard concert movie with interviews and backstage antics. But because of what happens to him over the course of the movie, the doc goes in a different direction and becomes less about The National and more about Tom.
There’s a big danger in doing that, of course, which is why I mentioned that Mistaken for Strangers isn’t the film profile on The National you’re looking for. Documentaries that become more about the filmmakers than the subject matter can feel wobbly and narcissistic depending on the person behind the camera. With Tom, the narcissism is tamped down by a lifetime of self-doubt and failure. There’s pressure to break the pattern even if it continues in some ways. Sure it’s not a good music documentary, but squares aren’t great circles either. Even if Mistaken for Strangers was supposed to be a music doc, it really isn’t just a music documentary anymore, and it’s good at being what it is now.
Instead of a tour doc, Mistaken for Strangers is like a portrait of a palooka used to screwing up and letting people down and used to being frustrated by that fact. This is Tom’s attempt to do something he can be proud of for once, and something that’ll make his brother proud of him. More than that, it’s Tom trying to show himself that he isn’t as big of a fuck up as he may think he is. Tom may have botched a lot of stuff while trying to make the film, but as a finished movie, I think he stuck the landing. This one’s going on the fridge.
[For more info on Mistaken for Strangers, visit tribecafilm.com/festival.]