Filmmaker Tom Berninger hasn’t amounted to much in life, and he knows it. A pudgy, Chris Farley-esque, shaggy-haired misfit whose hobbies include listening to heavy metal and making mini slasher movies, Tom catches a break when his older brother, Matt, lead singer of indie band the National, invites him to come along on the group’s world tour to “help out.”
Tom, who up until that point has been living in the basement of his parents’ Cincinnati home, takes this as an opportunity to make a documentary, and the awkwardness that ensues is frequently cringe-inducing but also charming, endearing, and relatable to anyone who’s ever had a sibling they just can’t quite live up to. To no one’s surprise, the best parts of the footage quickly become those based around Tom, the bumbling, beer-swilling, often-buzzed “director,” who asks such remedial questions of the hipster band members that they all need a beat before they realize he’s actually serious. (One example: Tom asks his brother if he ever “gets tired onstage” and, in a moment that veers into Spinal Tap territory, asks the band’s drummer, “How many drugs, and what kinds of drugs, have you done?”)
Initially, Tom thinks he’s signed up for a sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll party tour, but when he discovers the sedate Brooklyn-based band is way more into sipping wine than slamming Jack Daniels, he’s disappointed, to say the least. So he keeps getting in trouble, screwing up little tasks, and drinking too much of the band’s booze, all the while turning the camera on himself to capture just how bad he is at all of this “work” stuff. It’s almost enough to make viewer suspect the whole thing’s a Joaquin Phoenix-esque hoax. At one point, Tom complains to Matt about being picked on by his boss, the tour manager, who repeatedly tells Tom to put down the camera and get his job done. “It’s like they think the only reason I’m here is because I’m your brother!” says Tom. To which Matt responds bluntly, “The only reason you’re here is that you are my brother.” It’s a slap in the face, but obviously one in a lifelong string of misplaced expectations and comparisons. Through the rough-cut footage of the concerts, it quickly becomes clear that Matt, nine years Tom’s senior, is a naturally gifted star. He’s dramatic, cool, dynamic, a quintessential lead singer. As for Tom? He’s a roadie—on a good day.
Inevitably, Tom fails one too many times and returns home to Cincinnati, where he asks his parents about the differences they see between him and Matt. It’s hard to watch. Tom’s mom lauds him for being her most creative child, but at the same time reminds him that he drove her crazy as a kid because he always quit everything. His dad is more blunt: “Matt has self-confidence. You don’t. You haven’t had that kind of success.” You want to hug Tom, but you also want to high-five his folks for being honest enough to tell their kid to get his stuff together and do something for once.
Poetically, that something becomes this film. Through a maze of sticky notes depicting scenes and possible storylines, and more months of living in a room in someone else’s house—this time the guest room in Matt’s Brooklyn abode—Tom’s story takes shape. He so badly wants the film to mean something that you ache for him, the stoner with a heart of gold. This is his last shot—his only shot—and by using his own failure as the vehicle for his success, he makes something good. Mistaken for Strangers is a touching, raw, endearing film that is part rock documentary, part soul search, and part lesson in how to accept that one family member who you weren’t quite sure was ever going to reach adulthood.
Playing June 21, 10 PM, at AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, and June 23, noon, at the National Portrait Gallery.