Film review: Mistaken for Strangers

Indie rockers The National now have their own indie film thanks to Tom Berninger, younger brother of the band’s lead singer Matt. And it’s not your average rock doc, as Buster Stonham explains…

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If there’s any band in the world right now that you wouldn’t be surprised to see with a critically acclaimed film doing the rounds at all the big indie film festivals it’s The National. The Ohio natives are the epitome of an arty indie band, and at first Mistaken for Strangers feels like the epitome of the rock-doc genre. Yet as this film progresses, the story changes course to explore much deeper themes of family, jealousy and how to find your purpose in life.

Fans of The National in the UK have been waiting to see the film for some time and were finally rewarded when 57 cinemas across the UK hosted it simultaneously, and followed each screening with a live-streamed Q&A with its two most prominent figures.

Filmed by Tom Berninger, younger brother of lead singer Matt, the movie focuses on The National’s world tour of their 2010 album High Violet. Tom is the stereotypical underachieving younger brother, a heavy rock fan self-described as “between jobs” and with no idea of what he want to do with his life. He jumps at the chance to go on tour with older brother Matt as an assistant tour manager (a posh way of saying roadie) and in predictable fashion soon gets carried away with the tour lifestyle and his filming side project.

Matt also comes across as something of a stereotypical moody and aloof indie frontman, who at one point throws a temper tantrum after a gig doesn’t go to plan. As the tour continues tensions begin to rise and eventually come to a head when Tom is not invited back for the next leg of the tour in the Far East (a posh way of saying he was sacked) after eight months touring Europe. It’s also the turning point of the movie, when the focus switches from the band to the relationship between the two brothers and it becomes something far more than a run-of-the-mill rock documentary.

From here on the film focuses on Tom as he struggles to find something he wants to do, examining the brothers’ relationship as it goes. Tom moves into Matt’s garage to create a film from his tour footage and it slowly becomes a symbolic project for Tom. So much so that the creation of the film becomes the overarching story of the movie itself. At points we see Tom editing portions of movie we have watched just minutes beforehand. And in one moment worthy of Inception,we witness a botched screening of an early edit of the film we’re now watching…at a screening.

It’s during this portion that the Mistaken for Strangers is at it’s funniest, most touching and ultimately most honest. We now see a different side to each brother; Tom is desperate to find something to call his own and live up to his overachieving sibling, whilst Matt shows himself to be a protective older brother willing to do anything he can to help Tom. This family dynamic is the film’s most endearing and relatable feature, covering the brothers’ childhood and their current relationship.

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At just 75 minutes, Mistaken for Strangers feels a little short for a full movie and the ending, whilst funny and uplifting, doesn’t give much sense of closure. The narrative arc cuts off before the typical Hollywood ending and resolution that you anticipate. But this simply reminds us that this is real life – in fact, it is part part of the film’s honest charm. In the subsequent Q&A Tom and Matt reveal quite candidly that their relationship is still quite difficult and that Tom is still unsure of what to do with his life, despite filming taking place almost four years ago. Matt even amusingly reveals that Tom is still living in his garage.

Matt talks very openly about his fear when on stage and the trance-like mental state he has to get into before performing, the comedown from which sparked his temper tantrum in the film. Tom meanwhile looks chuffed at being in the spotlight for once, but remains self-effacing, joking with the audience about his lousy performance as a stage manager. But mainly he just seems proud to have produced something he can call his own.

And he has a right to be. Mistaken for Strangers is not a polished professionally produced film – but if it was it wouldn’t be half as funny, honest or insightful as it is.

Mistaken for Strangers is currently showing in selected cinemas in the UK for more info on the film click here.

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