There's a moment during the opening minutes of Mistaken for Strangers where we see Matt Berninger, lead singer for the rock group the National, getting a little snippy with the interviewer.
Berninger is outside, sitting on lawn furniture, and becoming incensed with the inane questions being asked by an off-camera voice. While he seems majorly perturbed, he also seems to be lashing out in a way that makes it seem he's familiar with the guy mucking up the interview.
It's soon revealed that the interviewer is, in fact, Matt's younger brother, Tom, the director of this very funny and ultimately heartwarming pseudo-rock documentary.
Matt has invited Tom along for a world tour in support of their album High Violet (an excellent album, I might add). The tour is employing Tom as a roadie and also giving him a chance to make a little film chronicling the tour. Tom's penchant for overall laziness and disorganization, along with his drinking (and oft-mentioned alcohol allergies), get him in trouble with the tour manager and his brother.
It doesn't take long before the realization hits that the film, while showcasing some powerful snippets of the band in concert, isn't really about the music at all. It's about a rock superstar giving his little brother—who still lives with their parents in Cincinnati— a chance to shine. I can safely say that by the time the film wraps up, Tom has done just that.
That's not to say he excels as a roadie. He's totally terrible in the job, and constantly unnerving his boss and brother. He forgets the towels, screws up the food orders, loses the guest list and keeps Werner Herzog and the cast of Lost waiting at an L.A. show, and constantly annoys band members by filming them at inopportune times. Tom has no real calling as a rock roadie.
However, he does have some chops as a filmmaker. He cut his teeth making some awful horror movies, and this very enjoyable film is a culmination of total disorganization and accidental moments. Tom Berninger ultimately shows a talent for taking a mess and turning it into something golden. At one point, during an interview with his mom after he's been fired from the road, she declares him her "most talented."
That moment just might be what propels Tom into one last trip to see his brother, finish his film and prove his talent. After a failed early screening, for which his brother chastises him, Tom rallies to produce the film as it stands today.
That film might not be 100 percent genuine. Indeed, some of it feels staged at times. Still, there's no doubt that Tom was a struggling artist before Matt invited him on the road to do some good. Whether the two conspired to make Tom look totally hapless on camera doesn't really matter. The movie is funny, introspective and powerful for most of its running time, and Tom certainly had something to do with that.
So, fans of the National looking for searing concert footage might be a little disappointed with this film. It's about as unorthodox a rock documentary as you are likely to see. Short on music and heavy on gravitas.
In turn, it's a fun and wacky chronicle of two brothers touching base and truly getting to work together for the first time in their lives after one has soared to rock superstardom and the other has wound up camping out at Mom's house. Mistaken for Strangers shows that Matt's faith in his weird little brother, who drew far better pictures than he did when they were kids, has paid off. The little pest knows his way behind the camera and around the editing software.