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The rock doc Mistaken For Strangers isn’t really about The National’s music

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Mistaken For Strangers is as much a film about its director as it is about The National, which may qualify it as an entirely new kind of rock doc. The premise is almost too cutesy to believe: Matt Berninger, singer for the increasingly successful band, hires his mild fuck-up metalhead of a younger brother, Tom, to act as a roadie on a big European tour. Tom, who still lives with his parents in Cincinnati and makes low-budget horror movies in his spare time, decides to film the whole thing while also shirking his roadie responsibilities. He alternately delights and annoys his subjects, who don’t have much to say in response to his questions—or lack thereof. (“How famous are you?” he inquires at one point.)


But the film quickly seems like less of a lark or meta-commentary on music documentaries and more of a sketch of an odd-but-close brotherly bond. Tom is an open book: He just wants to have fun, drink, and listen to Rob Halford’s Christmas album, and his more responsible older brother wants to help him get his shit together. It’s abundantly clear that Tom is jealous of Matt’s success, and maybe a little confused by it, but because he knows his big brother so well, he’s completely guileless as a director, and unafraid. More than once, Matt tells Tom to stop filming—whether because he just needs space, or because there are celebrities around who might be bothered by it—but Tom never does: He’s relentless but well liked (by everybody except the tour manager, anyway).

Of course he gets fired—after not doing his job, missing the bus, spilling cereal on the bathroom floor and not cleaning it up. The last chunk of this 75-minute film offers him a slight redemptive arc, as he heads back home to quiz his parents about his childhood—Mrs. Berninger insists Tom was always the more talented one—and take a little stock of himself. It’s not like he ever falls so far that he’s in any sort of real danger (and mugging at his own camera is never far off), but Tom does seem to find some tiny epiphany by looking at himself through his famous brother’s eyes. It’s a funny, weird, and entirely believable relationship that just happens to be set in proximity to one of the best bands of the moment. If you admired The National—and particularly Matt Berninger—before, Mistaken For Strangers will humanize him more than his cryptic lyrics ever could. But his non-famous co-star, and their relationship, is intriguing and entertaining enough to carry the movie even for those totally unaware of “Mr. November” or “Terrible Love.”