To be published only if and when the moods and movies strike us, Movies That Made Us is an occasional look at films that led us all here and still make us wonder about where we’ve yet to go.
Like the National’s music, I can’t get this documentary about the band out of my head. I was bound to love the film given my fondness for the indie rock group, but it stayed with me because of its more universal appeal as a portrait of brotherhood.
Mistaken for Strangers has what feels like a comedic setup. Director Tom Berninger (younger brother to the National’s frontman, Matt Berninger) gets a call from his rock-star sibling to hit the road with the band as assistant tour manager on the worldwide tour of the hit album High Violet. Tom, who’s nearly 30 and living in his parents’ basement, jumps at the opportunity. But he soon finds out that life on the road isn’t a party and begins to bungle his duties. One of the film’s most uncomfortably hilarious moments finds him forgetting to send a concert guest list and glossing over the fact that he left Werner Herzog waiting at the box office.
As Tom butts heads with his brother and the lead tour manager, the film grows more melancholy. Rather than making a documentary about the band as he intended, Tom starts turning the camera on himself and venting about Matt with the other band members. He pries one of the most revealing responses out of guitarist Bryce Dessner. When Tom asks Dessner if he’s comfortable with his line of questioning, Dessner says, “I’m a little perplexed because I thought we were going to be talking about me, but you’re just talking about Matt. But that’s normal. When most people ask questions, they just want to know about Matt.”
Tom isn’t a serious documentarian or confident artist. He’s a dorky dreamer who thinks he’s doomed to dwell in his brother’s shadow. But he’s more like Matt than he thinks and he’s also closer to carving out the same path toward creative success. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Matt talks about how the band wasn’t an overnight success. He recalls playing to a nearly empty crowd at New York’s Mercury Lounge and crying in his bedroom after the show. But the band eventually learned to channel that energy into its work.
“When we started putting that tension, anxiety, fear and humiliation into the music, it made us closer to each other,” Matt says. “And for the people who came to the shows, that made them connect.”
After that point, the film perfectly pivots into a montage of Tom assembling footage of his many failures on the tour. Like Matt, he puts himself out on the world’s stage, warts and all.
I can relate to Tom as someone who dreams big but grows disorganized and as someone with a seemingly more confident older brother who’s actually just as insecure. My brother, Harry, introduced me to the National shortly after I graduated high school, when I was trying to find myself in the same way as Tom. When I first watched Mistaken for Strangers, it hit close to home because, like Tom, I felt as though my older brother was always cooler than me. Harry is an actor, so I grew up seeing him perform on stage and mingle with admirers in the theater lobby after shows. But as we’ve gotten older, we’ve connected more as introverts. Harry lives in his head as much as I do, and I’ve come to realize that we run on the same neurotic energy. Like Tom and Matt, we’re kindred spirits — one of us just happens to spend more time behind the curtain.
I didn’t realize just how vulnerable Harry was on stage and how he was bringing his anxiety to performances in the same way Matt says he does. In other words, being a great performer isn’t about being cool — it’s about being raw.
Mistaken for Strangers also strikes a chord with me as an exploration of someone trying to prove their worth through a creative endeavor. Just as Tom thinks his movie will make all of his anxiety and insecurity go away, I tend to think some creative project will come along and “save me.”
I’ve doggedly pursued short stories, poems and film projects as end-all-be-all solutions to soul-searching struggles. And like Tom, I’ve lost sight of the successes amid the failures. For years, it’s been hard for me to shake the habit of defining myself by what I do creatively rather than personally. Of course, as the film shows, those efforts can sometimes be one and the same.
Near the end, as Tom is struggling to make the documentary while living with Matt and his wife and daughter, he says, “I just want to make something good. For him as well as myself.” What Tom ended up doing was revealing his fears and flaws as well as the love for his brother buried beneath all the jealousy — a process more important than the finished product of the documentary, as beautiful as it is.