Director: Marielle Heller
Starring: Matthew Rhys, Tom Hanks, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni
Growing up in Australia, we didn’t get Mr. Rogers. We got Sesame Street and a plethora of other American children’s television shows, but any awareness of Mr. Rogers was picked up secondhand, through mentions and references in other things we saw. In America, however, Mr. Rogers was an institution. For 912 episodes from 1968 to 2001, Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, would don one of his iconic cardigans and host the children’s television program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Looking straight down the barrel of the camera, in a gentle but never condescending voice, he would speak directly to the millions of children who tuned in everyday in a manner that made it feel like a one on one conversation. Never shying away from life’s difficult topics, his aim was to provide children with positive ways of dealing with their emotions. Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, based on Ton Junod’s 1998 magazine feature “Can you say ‘Hero’?”, examines the power of Rogers’ worldview even on a hardened adult. Skilfully constructed around a brilliant performance from Tom Hanks, even those with no pre-existing investment in Mr. Rogers will find this tale uplifting.
Esquire magazine is putting together a special issue on real life heroes and Lloyd Vogel (a fictionalised version of Junod, played by Matthew Rhys) is assigned Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks). As an award winning investigative journalist, this is hardly the sort of assignment Lloyd is used to receiving, but his tendency to dig beneath the surface and uncover things that subjects would prefer to keep hidden means that no one else is willing to talk to him. But what he assumes will be a simple puff piece is made more complex, first by his inability to determine where Mr. Rogers ends and the real Fred Rogers begins, and second by Rogers growing interest in him. As Lloyd’s personal life starts to go off the rails, the presence and message of Mr. Rogers becomes both a torment and a challenge.
Nothing confronts, challenges and confuses cynicism more than sincerity. Genuine, no strings attached, generosity and kindness. Hardened by both his professional and personal life, Lloyd cannot help but be suspicious of Fred Rogers. He is unable to accept that a person could be that tireless and genuine in their humility, caring and graciousness. And the truth is, neither can we. All previous experience with biopics has us primed to be taken behind the curtain and shown the shadow, the contradiction, the true Fred Rogers. But there is no distinction between the television persona and the human being. Tom Hanks, famously the most likeable man in Hollywood, is perfectly cast. Seemingly the only person capable of bringing the requisite goodwill to pull off the character, he makes us believe this is a real person. There are moments in which we see the burden he carries, in which we see strain, hurt and even anger within him but, practicing what he preaches, he finds a positive way to process those feelings.
However, this film isn’t about Mr. Rogers. Screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster instead choose to make Lloyd the protagonist. A protagonist needs to go on a transformative journey and, at least at this point in his life, Rogers is too settled and consistent a figure to provide that. It is more interesting to watch how another person is impacted, and their worldview challenged, by an encounter with him. The re-emergence of Lloyd’s estranged father Jerry (Chris Cooper) coinciding with his struggle to adjust to life as a new parent has brought unresolved childhood trauma to the surface. Lloyd is fundamentally untrusting of people and tends to push people away in moments of strain and stress. Rogers is drawn to Lloyd. As his manager Bill (Enrico Colantoni) says, “He likes everyone, but he loves people like you.” Broken people. While the trajectory of the narrative is largely predictable there is something therapeutic about watching it progress. Watching two men with opposing understandings of the world – Rogers believing that everyone is inherently good, Lloyd believing that everyone is inherently bad – trying to unlock each other. While it is Hanks who is getting all the plaudits for capturing the essence of Fred Rogers, in reality it is Matthew Rhys who has to do the heavier lifting in giving emotional weight to the story.
It is not uncommon for a film like this to be overshadowed by its feature performance. But director Marielle Heller ensures that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is more than just a vessel for an impressive impersonation, bringing a clear vision and style to the film. Mr. Rogers’ program is used as a framing device, with him introducing Lloyd to us as though we were children watching the show. Heller then takes that slightly fuzzy, low-fi, public television aesthetic and uses it to provide the stylistic connective tissue of the film. She incorporates miniatures of New York and Pittsburgh just like those of Mister Rogers neighborhood for scene transitions, ensuring the magic of the program infuses the whole film. While Heller has earned praise for her previous, slightly edgier works Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Diary of a Teenage Girl, the combination of Hanks and the subject material should see her introduced to a broader audience.
As the world around us is metaphorically, and in some places literally, burning, and we are faced with crises both physical and existential, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood presents itself as a wonderfully life affirming film. And just as with Mr. Rogers himself, it is life affirming not through its avoidance of hardship but its confrontation of it. While Hollywood continues to sell us heroism in the form of superhuman feats of strength and grand acts of sacrifice, Rogers offers us the just as heroic and potentially more difficult path of constant small acts of kindness. Every interaction, every conversation, never turning someone away, never cutting someone short. This is genuine compassion. It is not as sexy as the other type of heroism, yet you walk out of this movie feeling strengthened and emboldened to face the world in a way that no number of caped crusaders can inspire.
Review by Duncan McLean
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