There's a point in the sweet, offbeat music documentary Mistaken for Strangers when director Tom Berninger despairs, "I don't know what I'm doing here." He was not the only one confused.
In 2010, Berninger was living in his parents' basement in Cincinnati, Ohio, while his older (by nine years) brother Matt was preparing to hit the road with the National, the ruminative rock quintet he fronts. At the time, the indie darlings were breaking into the mainstream with the release of their brooding thriller of a fifth album, High Violet.
With hapless Tom in a rut, his rock-star sibling hired him as an underling roadie. Tom took along a small video camera in order to stockpile footage that was originally planned to be used as a tour diary for the band's website, but eventually became the basis for the feature film. Turns out he was such a bumbling roadie – slow with the water and towels for the musicians, unable to manage the guest list properly and partying so hard that he missed the call for the bus – that he was relieved of his modest duties before the tour was complete. He was fired, which gave him more time to devote to filming.
Initially, he appeared to be just as feeble a documentarian as he was an assistant tour manager. His stuttering conversations with band members made Chris Farley and his star-struck Saturday Night Live interviews look like Scorsese in comparison. (Sample question: "On tour, it's day in and day out – does that ever make you sleepy onstage?") And yet the film, which opens Thursday for an eight-day run at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto, turned out to be affecting and charming, with enthusiastic reviews citing its laughs and quirks. Director Judd Apatow called it a "classic," documentarian Michael Moore hyped it as the "one of the best documentaries about a band that I've seen," and the indie-music taste-makers at Pitchfork hailed it as the "funniest and most meta music movie since Spinal Tap."
Mistaken for Strangers succeeds because of its originality. Fans of the band might wish for more live performances, but mainstream audiences will likely prefer the deft handling of the sibling rivalry at the film's core.
More than anything, the unexpected development of guileless novice filmmaker Tom as his own protagonist is the movie's heart. Tom, an artistic man-child as comfortable with a beer in his hand as a camera, had yet to figure out his purpose in life. In trying to get himself in focus, his film becomes less about touring musicians and more about a man fumbling in the shadow of a public-figure brother while floating through life without a road map. And so, a slacker struggles and improbably succeeds.
"There have been people who see how Tom is in the movie and they think, 'Well, that person could have never made that film,'" says Matt. The brothers are sitting in the same room in New York for our phone interview. "And it's true. Tom probably couldn't have made this film alone. We brought in my wife and a couple of other smart people that helped him craft a story arc."
Matt's wife is Carin Besser, a former fiction editor for The New Yorker. She was among the film editors who played up Tom's awkward interviewing style, which supplies many comic moments. (Example: Tom, to his brother, "So, how famous do you think you are … you're way more famous than any of my friends.") And perhaps it was her idea to turn the focus away from her husband and the band and onto her lovable, unaccomplished brother-in-law.
"We cut for comedy," says Tom, 34, when asked if he was as inept as the film sometimes portrays him to be. "It's an exaggeration of me, but it is me."
A tour in support of the National's Grammy-nominated Trouble Will Find Me album from 2013 brings them to Toronto's Massey Hall for three nights this week (April 9 to 11). The group will also be on hand for the film's opening night at the Bloor – a sharing of the spotlight that would have been unthinkable until recently.
In our chat, the alpha-male Matt does most of the talking, more than once mentioning his wife's role in the completion of the film. Tom doesn't disagree, but does stick up for himself. "I stepped away from the editing chair, and Matt's wife helped find the film's tone and the humour," he acknowledges. "But some of the questions I asked turned out to be interesting questions. I wasn't wrong all the time. It took us a while to figure that out."
In the film, Tom encapsulates his brotherly dynamic morosely: "He's a rock star and I am not, and it's always been that way." More than one scene involves the taller, slimmer Matt scolding his shorter, rounder brother. "Do you have any kind of organization for this film?" he asks, exasperated.
On the phone, Matt talked about how the film had changed his understanding of Tom. "He sees the world through different coloured lenses, and he reacts to the world very differently than I do," he explains. "I've stopped trying to shape him to be more like me. I started loving, understanding and respecting him for who he is."
The Berningers's mother makes an appearance in the film. She tells Tom that she always felt he was the "most talented" of her sons, but that he had a long history of quitting projects and pursuits. By the film's end, the viewer is struck with the realization that Tom had indeed accomplished something: He had completed the film – the movie represents the triumph.
"We feel it's a perfect film to accompany the band," Matt says. "It feels like one of our songs. It's about all the weird, awkward things and how hard it is as human beings in the world, with all the little details on how we're our worst enemies at times."
So, what comes next for younger brother? "I'm more confused about where I'm going than ever," Tom admits. "People are calling, but this is all brand new. Whatever I've achieved, how do I call it up again? It's a little scary."
One imagines Matt smiling upon hearing that. His lyrics increasingly reflect the anxieties involved with being an adult – in the film-ending Terrible Love, he sings about walking with spiders and not being able to sleep "without a little help" – while the band itself has grown slowly and steadily, building upon each album and increasing its draw on the road incrementally. One hurdle cleared leads to another. Welcome, Tom, to your brother's world.
Mistaken for Strangers opens April 10 (with the National in attendance) at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto.
The National plays Toronto's Massey Hall, April 9 to 11 (masseyhall.com).