Though the DIY rock documentary Mistaken for Strangers does follow the 2010 tour of Cincinnati's indie band The National—comprised of two sets of brothers and lead singer Matt Berninger—as they play to the largest crowds they've ever seen, the film is not about the band. It's actually about, well, brothers—just not the brothers in the band.
Instead, this drama unfolds as Berninger's metal-head younger brother Tom tags along as a roadie for the tour, mostly shrugging off his duties to flaunt a camera in everyone's face as he attempts to make a documentary.
Probably not what their mother had in mind all those times she likely told the pair to "play nice" as they were growing up.
Mistaken for Strangers is a story about how a less successful brother copes with the insecurities of having an older brother who gets stopped on the streets of foreign countries and asked for autographs, an older brother whose creativity has thrived while his own ventures have fallen flat.
Not quite a tale of sibling rivalry, this is a story, rather, about brotherly love, disappointment and redemption; and it's as solid as they come.
Early in the film, amid scenes of Matt dazzling crowds with his tantrum-like performances, Tom stands backstage in the shadows checking footage from his shots. It's clear, that despite being on tour for the first time together, the distance between the brothers is great.
As Matt indulges Tom during sit-down sessions by answering ridiculous questions and even at times plays the role of irate father—for instance, correcting Tom's behavior when, from Matt's hotel room pool, Tom shouts toward a house Matt suspects is Moby's—the pair seemingly play out familiar childhood scenarios. Tom is the pestering and frumpy, happy-go-lucky little brother who acts before thinking, and Matt is the collected—albeit moody—professional with style and grace who just wants to hang out, sans drama.
And yet, despite Tom's often irritating (for the viewer as well) shenanigans, there is heartwarming laughter. There are also moments of pity. And while Matt's nine-years-younger brother never does quite cross the threshold of loveable—as other reviews suggest—there is nevertheless something about Tom's personality that convinces not only Matt, but also the viewer, that something makes Tom enjoyable to be around.
Perhaps just not for the length of a world tour as no one is immune to his antics. Not sound guys, not Matt's wife, not the Secret Service, not even Will Arnett.
As a result, midway through the film, the band throws in the towel and fires Tom from the tour. It has just been too much of Tom treating the job like a party, failing to perform his duties and—as Matt puts it—mismanaging his allergy to alcohol.
Ultimately though, Tom gains a lot of ground in convincing the viewer he's perhaps a bit more likeable than his bothersome failings originally indicated. He works to finish the film while living in Matt's daughter's playroom, thankfully emerging from his brother's shadow a bit by completing his documentary.
By the end it's clear, Tom isn't jealous of Matt; he simply loves his brother and wants to close the gap between them by building the kind of friendship they've never had.
To Tom, Matt once again becomes human, shedding his rock star persona and revealing his own insecurities, thereby assisting Tom in overcoming his own poor self-image to grow into the kind of guy worth rooting for.
And as Tom finds out over the course of the project, that's how his brother has always viewed him. Aw, isn't that nice?
Mistaken for Strangers
In theaters, and on iTunes March 28