The National Treasure: Mistaken for Strangers 

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Mistaken for Strangers
Directed by Tom Berninger

“Do you have any idea of organization and plan for this film?” Matt Berninger, frontman of indie-rock band The National, puts this skeptical (meta) question to his younger brother in the first few minutes of this singular, revealing music documentary. Invited by Matt to serve as the band’s roadie for their 2010 world tour, director Tom doubled down and decided independently to make a rock documentary. No plan? No problem! But actually Mistaken for Strangers is full of problems: the film’s half-baked plans; Tom's envy of his older brother (while Matt tours the world, Tom, a thirtysomething fuck-up, still lives at home); and almost everyone’s dubious opinion of the project and Tom’s job performance. Halfway through the tour (and movie), Tom gets the boot, kicking the documentary to a personal, problematic crossroads. What's a rockumentary without a rock band?

The film mirrors life; life mirrors the film. Mistaken for Strangers is more Exit Through the Gift Shop than The Last Waltz, but the better comparison is Stanley Booth’s seminal book The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones. Following the Stones over a year from 1968 through the tragedy at Altamont, Booth lived with the band, sharing their stories and some of their addictions. It took him over 15 years to write, but what Booth brought back was not just a document of the Stones on tour but of the 60s as a whole.

Off the tour, Tom returns back home, where his parents kindly, indiscreetly—as a parent might do to, say, a 13-year-old—negotiate his downbeat questions. “What have I always told you?” his mother says between nervous laughs. “You’re my most creative.” Tom is depressed, frustrated by his lack of success. But then Matt and his wife invite him to move in with them in order to finish the movie, giving him their daughter’s playroom. Watching Tom put together a plan for the film is unexpectedly poignant, a moving, meta vision of a film’s genesis. Slowly, but irresistibly, I began to root for the movie to succeed not just because I craved a good movie but also because I wanted Tom to succeed. Mistaken for Strangers captures the delicate, intimate gap that can separate failure from success— or families.

Opens March 28 at IFC Center

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