Mistaken for Strangers is poignant, excruciating and seriously funny. We almost watch it through our fingers, this rockumentary which turns over its “rock” to find the real, slithering, teeming human life beneath. Our first sustained response as viewers is: “I can’t bear to watch Tom (the director-cameraman and protagonist) humbled yet again by his roadie ineptitude and sibling insecurity.” Our second sustained response: “I can’t stop watching it. Should I seek help?”
No, you shouldn’t. This is a meta-rockumentary and “meta” is semiotician’s rhyming slang for “better”. Tom, the younger brother of Matt Berninger, lead singer in rock band The National, is, and clearly long has been, an out-of-shape, out-of-work, yet intensely endearing slob to Matt’s neat, tall, bearded high-achiever. Generously hired for a European tour, Tom cannot help messing up. Not because he playacts for our amusement: that would be a Hollywood concept comedy starring Zach Galifianakis or Jonah Hill. More because this tragicomedy of working bro versus non-working – in all that word’s senses from slackerdom to dysfunction – grows near-organically from two lives serendipitously thrown together. On screen, in laboratory conditions (sort of), like Cern particles.
The film is helplessly, or craftily, scatter-shaped. Molecules fly everywhere: bits of concert footage, bits of serious or This is Spinal Tap-ish interviews; bits – or lots – of Tom existentially imploding. In Europe he gets reprimanded by his brother, then fired. Back in America he films himself weeping one night in Matt’s spare bedroom, when he has lost faith in completing the tour documentary he pledged to make.
Of course that film turns into this one. Tom’s mother, also featured, says Tom was always the genius of the family, but Tom has never believed it. “My brother’s a famous rock star and – I’m not,” he deadpans plaintively to camera. Well, now he can believe in himself. At festivals and in indie-distribution theatres Mistaken for Strangers has become a super-hit. As they say in The Sibling Rivalry Handbook, the best revenge is success.