“Mistaken for Strangers,” a documentary about indie group the National, comes off like an exercise in self-deprecation. As much a diary film as a rockumentary, it almost compulsively veers away from its ostensible subject, the band’s world tour, probing the relationship between lead singer Matt Berninger and his kid brother Tom (who helmed the film) as though worrying a sore tooth. It remains ambiguous to what extent the director’s screen persona, which raises schlubbiness to an art form, is legit. But with its wry humor and fantastic mix of music and images, this seemingly odd choice for Tribeca’s opening-nighter could carve out a solid theatrical niche.
Tom has been invited by Matt to join the National’s world tour as a working roadie. The documentary, shot solo on a small camera, is apparently strictly Tom’s idea. A veteran of a couple of schlock horror videos, Tom portrays himself as being woefully unprepared for the job, plunging in, to Matt’s dismay, with no prepared questions, no organization and not even a notebook as he asks hilariously lame questions like, “Do you ever get sleepy onstage?” or “Where do you see the National in 50 years?”
About three-quarters of the way through, Tom finally manages to ask, albeit briefly, about the process of songwriting, and Matt speaks fleetingly of the difficulty of early tours, when nobody showed up. But generally few subjects of substance arise – aside, of course, from the deathless Matt/Tom dynamic. “It sucks being Matt’s brother,” the director says. “He’s a rock star and I am not.”
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A darling of critics, the National only really achieved commercial success shortly before the featured tour, during which they play to President Obama in Washington and thousands in Paris, London and Warsaw. Though granted little opportunity to discuss its music, the band is given ample room to perform it, and Matt’s penchant for physically interacting with concert-goers, writhing onstage and screaming into the mic lends the live shows plenty of drama. Meanwhile, Tom quietly proves himself a whiz at sound/image counterpoint.
But when not documenting concerts and occasional rehearsals, the film reverts back to the misadventures of Tom as he screws up his “other” job as assistant to the road manager. This gives the director the chance to crosscut between the band’s triumphant road trip and his own eventual, ignominious return to his parents’ Cincinnati home, where he plies Mom and Dad with anxious queries comparing himself to his brother. Ensconced in Matt’s Brooklyn home six months later, Tom begins to edit the docu, with chaotic results that nearly threaten to derail the film en route to its upbeat finish.