The National have always been a ‘band of brothers’: Bryce and Aaron Dessner, Bryan and Scott Devendorf, and then there’s Matt Berninger. The group’s towering frontman is the sole figure of the band lacking a ‘brother’. He’s not an only child, as many might assume; his brother just prefers heavy metal. Tom Berninger, the younger brother, has just released his first full-length feature film titled Mistaken for Strangers, with a tongue-in-cheek subheading ‘a film about The National.’
“When I first started off, I didn’t think this was going to be anything” were Tom’s opening lines to our interview. “All I wanted to do was make something for their website. I never thought it would be a movie.” There are hundreds of directors of successful films who could deliver the same line; however, few would be able to do it with as much believability as Tom. The documentary doesn’t have a consistent narrative. Despite establishing itself as a film about the National, Mistaken for Strangers doesn’t take long to transform into something completely different. You see Tom at his most sincere at the commencement of the movie, earnestly attempting to interview his brother and his band mates – having a series of cringe worthy conversations with each one of them. At the start of the film, it plays like a modern appropriation of This Is Spinal Tap, shortly after this, the perspective shifts and you’re not watching a film about a band – it’s a movie about Tom Berninger.
Mistaken for Strangers is a film about a desire for some kind of purpose. While the underpinning ideas are universal, the context Tom Berninger finds himself – as the ‘unaccomplished’ younger brother of a highly successful and critically lauded musician – are highly particular, and amplify the concepts that underpin the film. As the producer Craig Charland discussed, the film is a lot less about The National and a lot more about what it’s like “to be in your early thirties and to be having these artistic visions and knowing this is your last chance to realise them.” Tom added: “you’re lost and you don’t really know – it took me a while to figure out my style and what I wanted to do. This was the vehicle I had to prove myself.” There are moments throughout where Tom is aware he’s on his “last chance to maybe get this movie seen by more than 100 people”, and these moments that punctuate the film define it. It’s not a highly complex film, it’s about a person trying to find out what they want to do with their life – but even then, it’s clear throughout that Tom wasn’t intended to make this kind of movie from the start.
Over the course of the film, it all seems to fall together, in an equally odd and endearing way. “I put in all my fears and my history, and – before I turned thirty I didn’t really grasp what made me a good person, a unique person, and a unique voice.” Mistaken for Strangers isn’t just about one brother coping with the other’s success. In fact, The National (and Matt) are frequently in the mental periphery of the viewer, despite hanging in the physical foreground most of the movie. It’s a film about self-definition. As Tom commented, the film revolves around “just hanging in there, it’s a rough, rough, rough world but you’ll figure it out. Things come later for some people, and fuck, it came later for me.” It’s not a unique story, in fact, it’s fairly universal; however, the sincerity, humility and frankness that Tom Berninger delivers makes it a memorable one.
Tom doesn’t possess a shred of jealously or envy of the band – and that’s what makes Mistaken for Strangers a special kind of film.
The National are a popular band, and within their circles, they’re wildly lauded as one of the best bands of their genre. For many, being in the position of Tom Berninger – the brother left out of the band – would be difficult; however, it genuinely doesn’t seem to trouble him at all. While it’s not hard to lie about something, Tom has such a candid sense of honestly that it’s easy to believe him when he says: “I don’t revere them, I don’t listen to them, I don’t know the bands they tour with.” He says he ‘respects’ the band, but at the same time “would never really try to dissect their music; it’s not really [his] thing.” Charland, a self-proclaimed ‘massive fan’ of the band’, believes that Tom enjoys the music and the humour embedded in the songs, but maintains that Tom doesn’t possess a shred of jealously or envy of the band – and that’s what makes Mistaken for Strangers a special kind of film.