“To be perfectly honest it was a really difficult collaboration, because he’s making a film that could ruin my rock band and I’m paying him to do it”.
Michael Moore has a lot of explaining to do. With Roger and Me, he started a documentary movement where the film maker is as central as the subject that the documentary is addressing. He’s made some good movies, he’s made some really self indulgent wank fests. Morgan Spurlock has built a career on the same basis. When it works, it’s a great behind the scenes way to let the audience feel like they’re in on something. And that’s the biggest strength of Mistaken for Strangers.
Tom Berninger is a frustrated film maker. He’s in his 30s and seems to live at home with his parents. He’s also the younger brother of Matt Berninger, lead singer of The National, a band straddling the fence between indie darlings and super stardom. When Matt decides to throw his aimless little brother a bone, Tom goes on tour with The National as a roadie. A really bad roadie.
Initially set up as a documentary about the band, Mistaken for Strangers quickly becomes about Tom, his insecurities and his relationship with his brother. It spends its entire running time bordering on naval gazing self fellatio, but never quite crosses that line. Tom Berninger is a little self obsessed, a little quick to blame is own lack of success on his brother’s excess of success, and a little eager to shun all responsibility.
As a film maker, cinematographer and editor, Tom Berninger is a all over the shop. Shaky camera work, long takes of not much more than filmic selfies and the odd piece of obviously staged “conflict”, Mistaken for Strangers struggles to sustain its already short length, but when it shines, it really shines.
After an hour of Tom’s sad sackery and self pity, the movie eventually shows the two brothers getting along, enjoying each other’s company and genuinely caring about one another. And it’s these rare moments that make the long stretches of borderline depression worthwhile.
I knew nothing about The National before watching Mistaken for Strangers, but I didn’t need to. Because this movie is a lot more about Tom and Matt’s relationship than it is about the band. But the band sections offer their own bright spots too. Watching Tom on tour, as an outsider, an everyday guy who would never usually get this opportunity, it’s a vicarious thrill that makes his general screwing up all the more frustrating.
I don’t know if Mistaken for Strangers is a good documentary. I know Tom Berninger isn’t a good director or film maker, but the result is strangely compelling. The lack of music is a little frustrating at times, I would have liked to get more of an idea of the band, what they do, why they’re popular. But like I said, this isn’t as movie about The National, this is a movie about the Berninger brothers. If only Tom Berninger wasn’t so infuriating.