Tom Berninger, director of Mistaken For Strangers, is the sort of good-hearted lug you run into in comic book stores and heavy metal concerts. He's husky, bearded, a little loud, drinks some, and for lack of a better word, he's a slacker. He also spends a lot of time comparing himself to his brother Matt, who has found some success as the singer for The National, a band you may or may not know about.
Tom does have an interest in making films, though, and has occasionally worked as a tech assistant on small projects shot locally. When Matt invites Tom to join the band's European tour as a road assistant, Tom sees it as a chance to get reacquainted with his brother. Tom, who has directed a couple of homemade horror movies, decides to bring his camera along to shoot some of the tour, maybe to post some things on the band's website. Tom ends up getting fired from the tour, but Matt invites him to come live with him in New York. Tom spends more than two years living on "a slice of pizza here and there," and editing his footage. The result is not a typical tour documentary, but a tight, occasionally moving, 75 minute look at Tom's relationship with Matt. Maybe it's great. Maybe it says something profound about sibling rivalries. Maybe it's just a prolonged selfie.
For fans of the band, there's not much here. The National are a dullish bunch, as if the staff at your local copy center decided to start a band. We certainly can't tell if Matt's a good singer or not. What we do sense is that he's just famous enough to be slightly full of himself. He's kind enough to invite Tom on tour, but brash enough to remind him, "You wouldn't be here if you weren't my brother." We hear that Matt has a temper. We're given a scene as if to prove this, which looked fake to me, of Matt knocking over a hotel coat rack. It didn't seem like rock star rage, more like Real Housewives of New Jersey rage. In other words, getting mad for the camera.
There are other moments in the documentary that struck me as possibly disingenuous. Tom, for instance, poses some stupid questions to the band ("Do you ever get sleepy onstage?" "How famous are you?") which are mildly funny, but makes one wonder how much of Tom's buffoonery is done for effect. He's able to shoot and cut an entertaining film, and he displays a keen self-awareness, which makes me think he's an intelligent man. Somehow, he fell into this act of playing the stooge. (Even his mother, in one of the most touching scenes in the film, tells him that though he was a lazy child, he was always the creative one in the family, and that she still expects big things for him.)
In a way, Tom reminds me of a friend of mine from years ago. My friend was always talking about how he lived in the shadow of his sister, that she was a cheerleader, and sang in the church choir, and was the family's favorite. One Thanksgiving when I met his family, I half expected his sister to be a cross between Britney Spears and the virgin mother. What I saw, to my surprise, was a plump, rather plain looking woman who talked too much. (I imagine she talked too much because no one ever told her to shut the hell up.) I wanted to tell my friend that his sister only seemed special under the umbrella of the family. To me, an outsider, she was nothing to brag about. Of course, I said nothing, for their situation was none of my business.
I wish Tom knew how his brother looks to people who don't care about his band (I'd never heard of them). If I met Tom and Matt at a party, Tom is the one I'd probably like. But some people are so crippled by family history that they can't shake off those feelings of inferiority that are rooted in their childhoods. They'd rather make a film about it.
Matt doesn't have an easy job, either. Although he seems impatient with Tom's screw ups, at times he appears genuinely fond of his brother. After one of Tom's bigger gaffs, Matt describes himself as "furious and heartbroken." That's a tough mix of feelings.
There is an excellent scene late in the film where Matt is singing and decides to venture out into the audience, which can be risky. Behind him is a roadie, holding Matt's microphone cord up in the air so no one steps on or trips over it. The roadie follows Matt gallantly into the swarming crowd, Sancho Panza to Matt's Quixote. In time, we realize the roadie is Tom, clumsily trying to keep pace, but doing an impeccable job. The scene manages to convey something about Matt and Tom, and perhaps all brothers. But was Tom doing it because it was his duty as a brother? Was it an assigned task? Or did he simply think it would be good for the film? Documentaries are harder to trust these days, even a good one like Mistaken For Strangers.