Having an older brother who is tall, athletic, and basically the epitome of an All-American man is hard enough. Throw in the fact that he's a world-famous rock star and that you are kind of a screw up, and, well, you have Tom Berninger's life.
Matt Berninger is the 43-year-old lead singer of The National. In 2010, he invited his then-32-year-old brother on tour with him. At the time, Tom was living in the basement of their parents' house in Cincinnati, into heavy metal and not much else. He gladly accepted the invitation, only to consistently fail enough in his duties as assistant tour manager that he was fired eight months into the world tour despite the fact that his brother was the lead singer of the band. But he brought a video camera—he spent more time filming than making sure the food on the rider was actually in the dressing room—and the footage eventually became a documentary, Mistaken for Strangers.
Multiple studies show that siblings tend to grow apart during their middle years as they focus on spouses, children, and other aspects of their lives rather than their relationships with each other.
The film, which takes its name from a National song, is a meandering narrative full of indecision, inadequacy, boredom, mature rock bands, and immature younger brothers. But mostly, it's about sibling relationships, specifically the one between Tom and Matt, and how the latter encourages, cajoles, and supports the former through the movie-making process. The creation of Mistaken for Strangers isn't about the documentary itself; it's a stand-in for all the things Tom has quit throughout his life and the frustration Matt has felt watching him do so.
Multiple studies show that siblings tend to grow apart during their middle years as they focus on spouses, children, and other aspects of their lives rather than their relationships with each other. This makes sense, especially in a world where families are increasingly separated by geographic distance. But perhaps strangely, Mistaken for Strangers serves to bring Tom and Matt closer together. By the end, the younger Berninger is living in his brother's guest room—which previously served as a daughter's playroom—as he struggles to finish his film. Now, he's living in Matt's garage.
THROUGHOUT MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS, we hear tales of Matt as someone who can be incredibly difficult to work with, someone with a short fuse and an explosive temper. In another poignant scene, Tom and Bryce Dessner, The National's classically-trained guitarist, reminisce about being on the receiving end of an elder Berninger blow-up. It sounds, honestly, quite terrifying.
And yet, through it all, Matt remains exceptionally supportive of his brother and his rambling, unfocused artistic tensions. Early on in the film, Tom expresses his excitement to go on tour for a year with his brother because he rarely sees him anymore. (The perils of being a rock star....) The ploy doesn't work as Tom messes up over and over again, much to the frustration of Matt, who is busy fronting one of the biggest bands in the country and doesn't exactly have time to keep fixing his brother's messes. In "Important Variables in Adult Sibling Relationships: A Qualitative Study," a study conducted by Helgola Ross and Joel Milgram of the University of Cincinnati, the pair examine the relationship between adult siblings and the rivalries they develop. The researchers declare that "an important aspect of this dynamic is the mentor's recognition of the younger sibling's accomplishments. Rivalry ensued when mentors, instead of providing the required recognition, compared their younger siblings unfavorably against their own greater accomplishments on the same dimension of growth."
As such, Matt doesn't revel in his "greater accomplishments." While some sibling rivalry is beneficial, it's not what Tom needs. Instead, the confident lead singer helps his struggling younger brother find the finish line, doing whatever he can with a light guiding hand. At points it's almost father-son rather than brother-brother. A telling scene comes late in the film after nearly all the footage is shot. Tom, surrounded by post-it notes sorted seemingly at random on the wall, invites Matt to look at them. The older brother, at a loss for how to help his sibling, inquires about the organizational structure. Tom, lacking an answer, stutters and stammers. Matt, realizing that all he needs to do is acknowledge the accomplishment of getting the Post-it notes on the wall, does exactly that. He doesn't need to solve his brother's problem and he can't; he simply needs to spur him on in his own way. It's a touching moment that helps to tie everything together.
Mistaken for Strangers is not a great film. But much like brotherhood, it has its great moments. And, as is often the case, that's enough.