Mistaken for Strangers review (London Film Festival)

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Mistaken for Strangers green light Matt Berninger Tom Berninger

Perhaps the least bullshitting, most unostentatious rock doc ever, often as hilarious as This Is Spinal Tap, though with a different aim in mind in the end…
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Two brothers, unlike in temperament or dignity. One’s a successful indie rock star, the other’s a wannabe filmmaker-slash-metalhead who can’t seem to get his act together. The elder, musician Matt Berninger, leader singer of The National, invites the younger, Tom, along on a year-long tour, opening with the band’s first trip to Europe. Just to be a roadie, mind, but Tom decides the opportunity is perfect to make a documentary about the band. That shouldn’t interfere too much with the work he’s been hired to do, right?

The result is this right here, perhaps the least bullshitting, most unostentatious rock doc ever, and one that you needn’t be a fan of The National to get an enormous kick out of. (I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never heard of the band before I saw this film; my obsession for keeping up with new music ended when keeping up with movies took over.) At first Mistaken for Strangers feels almost like a parody of rock docs, highlighting Tom’s goofy direction of the band members — so he can get those “cool” portrait shots every film like this needs — and Matt’s frustration with Tom’s seeming lack of focus for the film. I wondered at first how intentional this parody approach was; it seems unkind to suggest that this is often as hilarious as This Is Spinal Tap, because Tom, not the band, is the butt of the joke, and Tom’s almost perfect cluelessness is unavoidably in need of a poke: he needs to be reminded that he’s not a member of the band, and that he’s along to work, not to party. “I feel like I’m on the outside looking in,” he laments, as if this were not actually the truth.

But just when I started to think this was veering into American Movie territory, becoming a canvas upon which the artist is accidentally painting an unflattering self-portrait, it’s suddenly plain that Tom is very self-aware indeed. Mistaken for Strangers shifts away from exploring the band on the cusp of wider mainstream popularity after ten years of hard work to become a dirge of creative frustration, as Tom finds his documentary thwarted and himself lost in his older brother’s shadow… again. The film’s title is borrowed from a 2007 National song, but it also works as a metaphor for the Berninger brothers, so very different from each other — Tom lacks Matt’s confidence, for one — and their uneasy yet loving relationship. How do you deal with the reality that your older brother is a rock star and you haven’t found your own footing yet? How do you persevere through what feels like creative failure?

How Tom copes will be almost agonizingly poignant for anyone who has struggled to do their own thing, not least which because it’s plain in retrospect that what seemed like Tom being an idiot early on is in fact Tom’s painfully honest self-deprecation about his own hangups and issues that have nothing at all to do with Matt. Mistaken for Strangers isn’t even really a film about rock music at all… or not only about rock music. It’s about the doubt and the despair that haunts everyone who makes art of any kind. We should all have the courage to confront our demons the way that Tom Berninger does here.

viewed during the 57th BFI London Film Festival

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