Tom Berninger’s masterful Mistaken For Strangers is a documentary about The National touring in support of their 2010 album High Violet. Well, that’s not exactly correct – it’s a documentary surrounding The National and their High Violet tour. The true focus is an autobiographical look at Tom Berninger and his relationship with his brother Matt (lead singer for the band), a deeper look into family and what that means, and in the end, a poignant look at finding oneself as an adult.
Here’s the basic setup: Tom is a former (failed) B-movie horror film director and metalhead currently living at their parents’ house in Cincinnati, a decade younger than his much more successful brother. There’s always been a rift between the two – while the age difference played a large factor, Matt always seemed to be more successful in life, whether it was football or his artistic aspirations. Hoping to reconnect with his younger brother, Matt invites Tom to come work on their international High Violet tour.
Tom packs his camera and passport and travels to Europe (for the first time in his life). Tom films the band. Tom films himself. Tom films himself getting drunk. Tom goes out. Tom misses the bus out of New York. Tom gets fired. Tom fails.
And it’s when Tom returns to Cincinnati that the film really becomes more than just another documentary about a band. Trying to figure out his place (and, to some extent, his life), he begins editing his film together. Sticking post-its of shots he has on the wall behind him, it’s incredibly evident that Tom has no plan and doesn’t realize the story he’s trying to tell. It’s only after watching footage of his brother conducting an interview about The National’s music that he finds his story: the reason the band resonates with so many people is that they embrace their failures.
It turns out the story was never about the band. It was about finding yourself, even through the failures. Reconnecting with your family and seeing that they believe in you, even when you don’t believe in yourself. And yes, this all may sound cheesy, but the film is woven throughout with such humor and honesty that it never feels overwrought or that it’s trying too hard to be emotional. It’s edited perfectly to really show the humanity of the situation – which one of us can’t connect with the feeling of failing at our dreams? At jealousy over another’s success? At the hope of maybe having that chance to really prove ourselves?
Mistaken For Strangers is currently touring documentary festivals around the world (check out the official website for future screenings), with plans in the works for a possible limited theater run before a DVD release.
(And yes, I’m fully aware of the meta levels here of reviewing a movie named the same thing as our little website which was named after a song by the band that the movie is about.)