The premise: Feeling bad that his younger brother is just wandering aimlessly through life, Matt Berninger – the singer for the indie rock band The National – invites Tom to join the group's tour as a roadie. Tom agrees, but has an ulterior motive; the young filmmaker (whose work up to that point consisted of a couple of low-budget horror flicks) wants to document the tour and make a movie. Whether or not this was all contrived is unclear, but in the end, it doesn't matter. The result is a beautiful piece of work. Tom Berninger: You have arrived.
Initially, I was drawn to the documentary because of the band. Only recently have I started appreciating The National, which has built a reputation as one of alternative rock's most innovative and intelligent groups for more than a decade. I've never seen them perform live, so I thought Mistaken for Strangers would be a great way to see them in action. But when I learned how the documentary came to be – and who was making it – I was even more intrigued. On the day of its release (March 28, 2014), I downloaded the film from iTunes to see how a relatively inexperienced filmmaker would document something as potentially harried and unpredictable as a rock band's eight-month tour.
As one might expect, the filmmaking itself is rudimentary. For example, Tom seemed to shoot most of the documentary with a stabilizer-free handheld camera. He clearly didn't have a storyboard or solid idea of what he wanted to film before he began. And there are many instances where seasoned professionals would cringe at the editing – or lack thereof. Additionally, one realizes quickly that the documentary Tom is perhaps unknowingly making is about himself learning to deal first-hand with the success and celebrity of his older brother. At one point, Tom complains: "I feel like I'm on the outside of this world [of the band], looking in." By the end of the documentary, however, I was sure Tom began to accept his place in that world and found a sense of purpose for himself.
As Mistaken for Strangers progressed, I became less concerned with Tom's techniques and more enthralled with watching the interaction between Tom and Matt. Ultimately, what this film is about is an exploration of brotherly love, family dynamics, and the emergence of one artist out from behind the shadow of his famous brother. Watching the relationship evolve between these two men is both fascinating and heart-warming. This dynamic completely outweighs the clumsiness of the actual camera work. As the end credits rolled, I found myself smiling ear to ear. Then I called my brother.