Save the strawberry blonde hair, the baritone speaking voice, and the obvious affinity towards the arts and everything creative, Matt and Tom Berninger have nothing in common. Matt, who heads one of the most popular and critically acclaimed rock groups of the present, The National, is sarcastic, moody, introspective and intense. Tom, on the other hand, is non-committal, lighthearted and irresponsible. He is the person that we all know, who is clearly very intelligent and capable, yet for one reason or another just can’t get his shit together.
Mistaken For Strangers follows Tom on the road with his big brother Matt and the rest of The National throughout their High Violet tour. Tom, possibly the worst roadie ever, seemingly has nothing serious going on in his life until he receives a call from Matt asking for some help on tour. Tom’s failings as a roadie and general dysfunction were both hilarious and at times frustrating. From forgetting to give the box office the guest list to getting wasted and missing the bus out of New York City (they had to turn around in Beacon, New York to get him) the face-palm moments are endless, and after what seems like a million warnings from the band and management team, Tom is eventually fired.
Tom getting fired from tour is definitely his low point, but it marks the beginning of his creative process as a filmmaker. Throughout the tour Tom had been filming everything from concert footage, to shower scenes (we get to see way more of Bryan Devendorf than we signed up for), to intimate interviews with the band, however none of it seems to make much cohesive sense. After getting fired, Tom returns to Cincinnati with nothing but hours of random and disjointed footage. Tom then interviews his parents, reflects on his childhood and his relationship with his brother, and with some help from momma Berninger, who tells him that he is the most talented out of the Berninger children, he finally starts believing in his talent as an artist.
Slowly something ignites in Tom. He moves to Brooklyn to enlist the guidance of his brother, and begins the tedious process of piecing the footage together. Organizing post-its into categories such as concert footage, funny footage, sentimental footage, interviews, etc, he completely covers the wall of his bedroom. In one of my favorite scenes of the film, Tom tries to explain the method to his madness to a very dumfounded and overwhelmed Matt, and for the first time we really get a sense of Tom’s unique creativity. Slowly all of the footage mapped out on the wall gets pieced together into the movie that we are watching.
The movie ends on a hopeful note. We are unclear as to where exactly the future will take Tom, but we know one thing, throughout the movie we’ve been rooting for him to just to commit to a project enough to make it great, and in that he has had his first creative success.
My favorite aspect of the movie is its sincerity. Because Tom wasn’t going for anything specific when he was filming the band, the footage ended up raw and unmanufactured. Therefore we were able to get a real sense of the dynamics of the band, and the dynamics of the brother/brother relationships (both the good and the bad). We see moments when to be perfectly honest, we hate Matt. He comes off as a pretentious pampered asshole. Then at other moments, we see Tom bring out Matt’s playful side (like when he made him stand in front of a fogged up mirror with nothing but a bathrobe and his trademark red wine to recite “I am not The National, The National is everybody’s now”). In my opinion, the sweetest brotherly moments where when we see Matt get sincerely frustrated and pissed at his brother over his shortcomings and failures. These are the moments when we see just how much Matt cares for Tom.
So what about The National? Well, film title aside The National’s tour is actually a secondary plot in a film that is mostly about self discovery. Tom is our protagonist, and we get to know him intimately. Throughout the film we come to understand his creative process, his strengths and weaknesses, and his vulnerabilities. He is the most relatable character, because we have all been him at one point or another. Okay so maybe we haven’t had brothers who have sold out the Barclays Center, or have been featured in The New York Times, but we have all been in someone’s shadow. The film shows a very inspiring depiction of someone emerging from that shadow and striving for happiness and personal success.
At the end of the film, Matt and Tom Berninger came out for a Q&A with the audience, and pretty much everything was discussed: Tom’s taste in horror movies and metal concerts, Matt on how it feels to give a good/bad live performance, the fact that Matt is always drinking red wine. We learned some things that maybe were best kept unsaid (Matt was a huge fan of Barry Manilow and the Grease soundtrack before his eldest sister brought home The Smiths and The Violent Femmes). One thing however was made astoundingly clear: Tom is EXACTLY like how he was portrayed on film.
Mistaken for Strangers is real, raw and intimate, but most importantly it is creative and original. We all know that Matt is talented, and Mistaken for Strangers gave us an insight into what it is like to be a successful rockstar, but more importantly it is a film about a downtrodden person struggling for personal and career success. Fret not, The National junkies, you will still get your fill of intimate interviews, rare concert footage and cool band anecdotes. This film is a definite must see, so go now!!