Mistaken for Strangers

Tom Berninger

BY Kevin ScottPublished Apr 28, 2013

It's an odd sort of torture to live in the shadow of a successful older brother. As the younger sibling of Matt Berninger-- lead singer of acclaimed indie rock group The National—Tom Berninger knows the feeling all too well. In agreeing to join the band on a 2010 tour of Europe and North America as one of their roadies, he decided to bring along a camera and the resulting film is a discomfiting, unflinching examination not of the band dynamics, but of the tortured filmmaker trying to carve out his own place for himself in the world.

With nine years separating them, the relationship between Matt and Tom is as unique an organism as any lifelong bond, with protectiveness and camaraderie periodically giving way to irritability and lectures on priorities. Matt, buoyed by playing to sold-out venues packed with worshipping fans, is the picture of stability. Meanwhile, Tom is a ship without a rudder, a self-described metalhead resembling a cross between Jack Black and a less-deranged version of Tim Heidecker in The Comedy.

Interestingly, besides Berninger, The National is comprised of two different sets of brothers, who largely take a backseat to the Berningers' divergent paths. In the few moments they do appear, what's revealed is how poor an interview Tom conducts, confounding the guitarists and rhythm section with questions like, "Where do you see the band in fifty years?" After being met with a blank stare, he compromises by capping the outlook at forty years.

This exchange is indicative of the good and the bad of Tom placing himself in the foreground. While he possesses an affable presence and captures a dynamic between he and Matt that's worthy of attention, anyone going in expecting to see more of the band's energetic live shows or insight into their process is likely to be a little disappointed. This schizophrenic approach leads to technical difficulties experienced on-stage by the band standing alongside the nervousness that Tom feels at an early test screening of the very film we're watching.

In a moment where Matt explains how The National only succeeded after embracing the pain and fear of their early failures, it becomes clear why it was important for Tom to similarly document his own struggles. Art is often born out of the desperate need to articulate some foreign feeling within and this look inside his own insecurities more than compensates for it not being the proper study of a great band that some will undeniably still hope for.

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