Tom Beringer’s older brother Matt is a rock star. He fronts the band The National, and the other members of the group all happen to be brothers. That leaves Tom, nine years Matt’s junior, feeling a bit left out. While Tom was living in their parents’ home in Cincinnati, struggling with an awkward adolescence (losing himself in B horror movies and drawing surreal dream worlds), Tom was on the road, steering his band’s long climb to commercial successes. After all those years apart, Matt decides to offer an olive branch. He invites his young brother on tour and gets him a job as a roadie. The sloppy, pestering, often funny and occasionally annoying Tom — who feels more like Jack Black’s twin than Matt Beringer’s kid brother – jumps at the chance. He also decides to make a documentary about the experience.
Mistaken For Strangers begins as a simple behind the scenes look at a rock band on the road as seen through Tom’s eyes. His natural irreverence, sense of humor, and knack for asking great “dumb” questions (“Do you take your wallet on stage?”), dismantles preconceptions about the rock and roll lifestyle, at least where The National is concerned. They sip wine backstage, entertain TV stars, get pictures with the president. Tom bugs them about drugs habits (which don’t seem to exist), and gets scolded by his brother for over-hitting the green room bar. Tom also turns out to be a pretty terrible roadie. He’s sloppy and irresponsible. He forgets to do his job, holds up the bus during tour stops, and generally slacks off. The National’s tour manager continually berates him for neglecting his duties for shooting footage of the band.
The irony here is that the rock star is the responsible one in the family, and Tom, who has little going on in his life and still lives at home with his parents, is the black sheep. As the film progresses, Mistake For Strangers begins to explore this dynamic more closely. Matt comes off as callous and aloof at first, but over time we begin to see his patience and love for his brother. And while most of us don’t know what it is like to have a sibling who’s a rock star, Matt and Tom’s relationship begins to take on the patterns and tensions that define most sibling rivalries. Matt’s success overshadows everything Tom does, and their affection for each other is strained by Tom’s own struggle to come to terms with himself. Matt’s own anxieties remain largely unspoken, but the way the film is cut, his frustrations with his brother seem to erupt into frantic displays of emotional intensity on stage.
Though Tom’s camera confessions, candid exchanges with his brother, and a few heart breaking interviews with his own parents (who seem to exacerbate the feeling that Matt’s success only shines light on Tom’s inadequacies), Mistaken For Strangers explores the intimate relationship between brothers, the tug and pull of love and jealously. The final 15 minutes of the film is a multi-layered document of Tom’s own attempt to finish the movie, and the documentary itself becomes an act of redemption — Tom’s way to prove that he is capable, responsible, and his own role in the world. The credits role over one of the film’s best sequences, Tom following his brother out into the crowd, navigating the mic wire so his brother can lose himself in the throng and performance. You read the word “security,” blazoned across the back of Tom’s shirt, as Tom’s name scrolls across the screen under the title “director.” The moment perfectly frames the fraternal dynamic and caps the younger brother’s backstage triumph.