After Stories We Tell, Mistaken for Strangers offers yet another problematic example of nonfiction filmmaking as extended therapy session. In the process of Tom Berninger trying to work through his complicated feelings about his ne’er-do-well self and relationship to his brother, the film exposes the perilously thin line between the deeply personal and the plain narcissistic.
Berninger’s brother, after all, is no ordinary sibling: Matt Berninger of the National, the popular indie-rock band known for often-melancholy tunes made even more poignant because of its lead singer’s richly expressive baritone. The pretext for this documentary is Tom’s attempts to make a film about the band’s recent world tour—and, considering both Tom’s filmmaking aspirations and the fact that he rarely gets to see his famous brother anymore, he eagerly takes up the challenge and becomes a groupie. But the more he throws himself into this assignment, the more the fissures between these two siblings start to show, to the point that what was meant to be a traditional behind-the-music rock documentary becomes something far more inward-looking: a baring of his insecurities, neuroses, and self-destructive impulses. And as Tom’s filmmaking process becomes more foregrounded, especially in the final half-hour as we see him during the editing process, Mistaken for Strangers acquires a markedly self-reflexive aspect as well.
Stories We Tell followed a roughly similar structure. What began as a seemingly straightforward recounting of the ramifications of Sarah Polley’s discovery that she isn’t biologically related to the man she’s known all her life as her father became, in its third act, a more reflective exploration of the director’s own conflicted reasons for making the film: whether there’s any cathartic value in her making it and whether there’s any in the audience seeing it. Alas, Tom Berninger doesn’t have half of Polley’s canny philosophical aspirations to wrench revelations out of a similar turn toward self-awareness in the end.
The filmmaker’s willingness to expose his self-loathing merits respect, and occasionally his undigested neuroses inspire genuinely touching moments, especially when Matt makes gestures to try to lend his brother a helping hand during the film’s editing process. But Tom seems to have made this documentary under the assumption that his personal issues are inherently interesting just because he puts them on the screen. At least Polley eventually tried to couch her ghosts-in-the-closet family saga in Stories We Tell in a more thoughtfully universal context that would make it resonate beyond the particulars of her own personal narrative. Mistaken for Strangers, by comparison, adds up little more than an anguished man using the hook of following his famous brother in order to gaze, however critically, at his reflection for 75 minutes.