Review: ‘Mistaken for Strangers’ is a funny doc about a serious band

Matt Berninger, frontman of The National, and his brother Tom chillax in the latter's documentary "Mistaken for Strangers." Credit: Starz
Matt Berninger, frontman of The National, and his brother Tom chillax in the latter’s documentary, “Mistaken for Strangers.”
Credit: Starz

‘Mistaken for Strangers’
Director: Tom Berninger
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
3 (out of 5) Globes

The brooding indie rocksters of The National have a sense of humor — just a subtle, mordant one, noticeable in wordplay and a bemused detachment. It’s arguably most noticeable in their song “Mistaken for Strangers,” off their album “Boxer.” (“You wouldn’t want an angel watching over you / Surprise, surprise, they wouldn’t want to watch.”) As it happens, “Mistaken for Strangers” is also the name of their first rock doc. And it’s funny!

Not that that’s because of the band, mind. This isn’t a traditional doc, but a tour doc — really a home movie, made by Tom Berninger, the brother of bearded baritone frontman Matt. Tom is nothing like his bro. He’s a slovenly, hard-partying, deeply insecure metalhead, who Matt assumes thinks his precious, astonishingly successful band is “pretentious bulls—.” “Mistaken for Strangers” isn’t even really about the band, who you mostly see in passing. There aren’t even the obligatory concert scenes, at least ones that last more than a handful of seconds before Tom gets bored and moves on to the next thing.

It’s about Tom and his attempt to stay sane and find a niche during the drag of a tour. Matt, who’s nine years his elder, has invited him to be a roadie on their biggest tour yet. But Matt is distant and introspective, while Tom is fun-lovin’ and bumbling. He drinks too much. He almost misses buses because he was still at the bar. He’s filming whatever amuses him, from the sight of two train cars hooking up (“Nice one!” he shouts as they succeed) to them hanging backstage with the likes of St. Vincent to, a bit creepily, the band members sleeping.

For the first half, the very idea that there’s a documentary about The National — a serious, earnest band whose sound has gotten increasingly close to stadium-y — that’s just a drunk dude filming random stuff is even more amusing than anything on screen. Tom is expecting Motley Crue-level debauchery, but has to settle for a bunch of aging hipsters lightly bobbing their heads to New Order. And Matt becomes steadily annoyed with him, exposing a temper that his bandmates quietly agree is there.

The rough-and-tumble feel eventually makes way for a more “traditional” portrait of forgiveness, redemption and renewed brotherly love. (And when Tom needs a sad but empowering song for a sad but empowering montage, he’s hooked up with the right band.) But despite some tight editing — Matt’s wife, Carin Besser, billed as co-editor, is clearly responsible for its quicksilver pace — it never quite shakes off its shaggy quality. That’s a good thing. Without appearing to try, it becomes about many things: not just sibling rivalry, but fear of failure when surrounded by those with overwhelming success, the fear of failure by those with overwhelming success, the drag of the road. And it’s about a film’s making and then near un-making. The best thing you can say about “Mistaken for Strangers” is that, for awhile, it doesn’t feel like a film at all.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge


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