Mistaken for Strangers is the title of a documentary about the National that isn’t really about the National.
To begin, it’s worth mentioning that the National consists of two sets of brothers, Scott and Bryan Devendorf and twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner, along with lyricist and lead singer Matt Berninger. At the film’s onset, an interviewer asks Matt how it feels to be the only band member without a brother, and you can sense the uneasiness in his response as he hesitates and mumbles, “Well, I do have a younger brother.”
Indeed, Tom Berninger is nine years younger than Matt. He’s a metalhead, an aspiring filmmaker (a term loosely applied–the clips of his amateur films are terribly humorous) who lacks any motivation or determination or direction. He lives in his childhood home in Cincinnati with his parents. He doesn’t get the National–they’re “coffeehouse,” he claims, an indie band that’s inexplicably gotten attention, leaving Tom perplexed. And so, when Matt invites Tom to join him on tour as a roadie, he brings along a camera and decides to film the trek across Europe in support of the band’s 2010 album High Violet.
Tom continuously fails at his duties–he misses the bus after a show, leaves spilled cereal and milk on hotel floors, and loses guest lists, leaving the cast of Lost and Werner Herzog stranded outside the venue. He keeps filming to the dismay of the band’s manager, who chides Tom for neglecting his work; he keeps drinking to the dismay Matt himself, who consistently tells his brother, “You’ve got the allergy.” Of course, he’s ultimately fired from a job he has his brother to thank for securing.
Suddenly the film isn’t about a band on tour or life on the road. Tom moves into the Brooklyn residence of Matt, his wife, and his toddler, where he is given space to create his movie. Having lived in the shadow of his older brother for so long, Tom is now under his Matt’s roof. He turns inward, and the focus becomes the relationship between the two siblings.
Mistaken for Strangers is about a lot of things, but fundamentally, it is about the bond between the Berninger brothers. In an interview with NPR, Matt said, “We love each other a great deal, but there’s often a lot of conflict between the two of us.” And that conflict is what makes the film so compelling, and so relatable–the conflict inherent between two siblings so radically different from one another, so often at odds with one another, yet so concerned about the well-being of the other.