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Mistaken for Strangers

By Corey Beasley | 9 April 2014

Late in Mistaken for Strangers, director Tom Berninger films his brother sleeping. His brother happens to be Matt Berninger, frontman for the National and a bona fide rock star in the indie world, but in that moment he’s just a middle-aged dude crammed into a coffin of a bunk on an overnight bus ride. Tom, almost a decade Matt’s junior, has just been fired from his gig as a roadie on the National’s latest tour, an experiment in brotherly love that ultimately threatened to further strain an already strange, somewhat distant relationship. When Tom films Matt—and the rest of the band—as they sleep in their bunks, it makes explicit the distance he feels from his brother and his lifestyle, how he watches Matt the way the rest of us do: from a remove, filtered through the haze of Cool that comes with his older brother’s success as a musician. The footage of Matt sleeping is a rare—and weird, and voyeuristic—glimpse at the human underneath the rock star suit. You get the sense that even Tom feels privileged to catch the opportunity.

There aren’t many of those chances. By the end of the film, Matt Berninger remains more or less as aloof as he was at the start. That, in a coup for Tom, ends up being crucial to the success of his movie, which takes the “rock doc” premise and scrambles it into something much more entertaining and, in fits and starts, more poignant. Yes, you get the standard rock doc DNA: frustratingly abbreviated live footage, b-roll of dozens of shows stitched together to reflect the passage of time on a long tour, shots of food and booze tantalizingly laid out on a dressing room table. But we also get plenty of candid footage of brothers fighting and complaining about one another. And, blessedly, they’re not even Gallaghers! Instead, both Berningers are—in these moments of brotherly, loving resentment—immediately recognizable to anyone with a sibling of their own.

But then, Matt argues with Tom while wearing a bespoke, three-piece Rag & Bone suit. And the questions upsetting him are about how it feels to be onstage singing in front of thousands of people, not the proper temperature to grill a steak. In other words, Tom is arguing with his brother but also, obviously, arguing with a rock star. He can watch fans literally hold Matt aloft in a crowd, and he can ask his older brother how that feels, but he can’t feel it himself. He’s one of us—only he’s not quite that, either. He’s forced to deal with his brother’s fame as a reflection of his own non-fame. He has to engage with it by feeling constantly aware of how Matt’s successes and talents are amplified through a thousand channels, while his own stymied projects and relative stasis seem even more pathetic in the inevitable comparison.

That burden makes Tom profoundly endearing. It also doesn’t hurt that he never, not once, seems bitter toward Matt, even when he loses his job on the tour. Rather, Tom can celebrate his brother—and the love between the two Berningers is always palpable onscreen, even (especially?) when they’re fighting—and express his own inner frustrations, simultaneously, without lapsing into self-pity. He feels the way you and I do when we look at our Facebook or Twitter feeds and see that our moron former classmate has an essay in The New Yorker, or that our horrible ex-thing has gotten engaged to an attractive human, or that people still love Vampire Weekend. Everyone else seems to be doing better than we are. Only for Tom, it’s the guy whose shadow already cast itself all over his childhood, and whose success is positively stratospheric. It’s no small irony that Tom’s greatest success, this film, comes courtesy of his brother’s greater success. And it’s to Tom’s credit that you feel certain he’d both laugh at that idea and readily acknowledge it.

In that way, Mistaken for Strangers ends up subverting the rock doc in the most brilliant, crucial way possible: rather than an exercise in exciting envy in its viewers for a rock star’s lifestyle, it offers a lesson in empathy and humility. By the final scene, where Tom follows closely behind Matt at a sold-out show, unraveling Matt’s mic cord while his brother walks through the crowd and works them into a lather with his mere proximity, the image no longer suggests some unbridgeable gap between the Berningers’ lifestyles. Rather, it shows two dudes, with different talents and different things to offer, helping each other out—and being open to taking that help, in turn. That might not do much to improve the National’s image among those who consider the band a bunch of stodgy, maudlin dads, but if you’ll excuse me, there’s just some dust in my eye and who’s in here slicing onions in the damn theater?