Mistaken For Strangers was unofficially known as "The National doc" around blogger buzz circles. In a year where we've been spoiled for choice at the Tribeca Film Festival, this basic descriptor was enough for several critics--myself included-- to bump the doc down our ever-changing list of must-see priorities. Some groaned at seeing "another concert doc," while others (ahem) had no idea what The National was, so deemed it sensible to sidestep. Then the film premiered at TFF's opening night, and those critics who gave it a shot raved, declaring this is no common rock doc, saying it didn't matter if you're not in the know about The National: see this movie. You could almost hear the furious flutter of programming pages as the rest of us frantically flipped about to shift our screening schedules accordingly. That's how effusive the first wave of praise was.
Mistaken For Strangers is not so much a documentary about a rock band as it is a portrait of brothers and the hard won labor of artistic creation. Its story follows Tom Berninger, the stocky, shiftless younger brother of The National's frontman Matt Berninger. While Matt's band was blowing up and touring with their latest album (High Violet), Tom was 30, living at home with his parents, occasionally making gory action-horror shorts about cannibals and serial killers. Matt is the family's golden boy, not to mention an honest to god rock star. Tom is the black sheep, a wannabe filmmaker with no real prospects. But when Matt invites his little bro to be a roadie on the band's world tour, Tom brings his camera to make a rock doc about the band. It's blatant nepotism, and its results--captured by Tom's unblinking and often intrusive lens--are positively hilarious.
As the tour proceeds, Tom grows frustrated that 1) The National doesn't embody the rock 'n' roll lifestyle he'd expected (they sip wine!) and 2) he actually has a job to do on tour. He wants to share in the experience his brother has earned without any of the work, which causes tension at all corners. Making matters worse, he is an utterly inept interviewer, asking band mates hysterically inane questions ("Do you take your wallet onstage?") and urging them to side with him in his fraternal conflict. And because of behavior like this he is again and again scolded with the refrain of "turn the camera off!"
But while Tom is a goof and a screw-up, he's also someone desperately struggling to forge his identity outside his brother's shadow, which is something most can relate to even if our siblings' aren't rock stars. More remarkably, Matt is not made a villain, as his motives are also clear and well meaning. Despite being often exasperated by his little brother, Matt wants to help Tom find his own path to self-satisfaction through creative expression. It's the brothers' desire to connect, combined with the sibling rivalry conflict that makes Mistaken For Strangers emotionally complex and compulsively watchable.
In the end, the film itself is a victory, or more specifically Tom's victory and redemption. It's wonderfully unguarded, presenting a vulnerability and self-deprecating humor that make it a joy to watch. Moreover, Mistaken For Strangers is insightful about the push and pull, the snarl of heartbreak and ardent love, that makes up sibling bonds, as well as how these bonds shape us. Tom and Matt have little in common, but their struggle to make something good unites them. And as captured by here, it's both inspiring and profoundly entertaining.
For our complete Tribeca Film Festival coverage, click here.