*** out of ****
(for some strong thematic material, a brief fight, and some mild language)
Released: November 22, 2019
Runtime: 108 minutes
Directed by: Marielle Heller
Starring: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni, Christine Lahti, Maddie Corman, Tammy Blanchard, Wendy Makkena, Maddie Corman
The familiar diorama from the classic intro of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood are the first images we see, set to that gently charming theme. Tom Hanks enters as the beloved PBS children’s show host, swapping his suit coat and dress shoes for a sweater and sneakers. The warmth in the heart that this recreation stirs is instantaneous.
That affection, however, is conjured by something more substantial than nostalgia. Our heart is responding to innocence.
Innocence is what our souls need and hunger for. It’s what Fred Rogers modeled and nurtured but he did so paradoxically, by helping kids confront reality, not avoid it; confront the reality of their feelings, their confusions, and life’s tragedies, and to overcome the fears those things create.
That kind of innocence is what A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood compels us to pursue, not merely for sentimental reasons but for the healing balm it can provide for even the deepest scars.
Inspired by a true story, A Beautiful Day sees Mr. Rogers as a supporting catalyst in the life of magazine writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, The Americans), a happily married man and new father who harbors a simmering bitterness that he’s suddenly forced to face. His deadbeat father Jerry (Chris Cooper) — who walked out on him, his mother and sister at a moment of crisis years before — has unexpectedly come back into his life.
As these old wounds reopen, and as fate (or Providence) would have it, Lloyd’s editor assigns him to write a feature story about Mr. Rogers. The would-be puff piece, however, becomes intensely therapeutic when Rogers strikes up a friendship with Vogel, something that the hardened Lloyd initially resists, preferring to keep things professional. Patiently, America’s favorite neighbor broadens their interview sessions to explore the resentments that Lloyd clings to, counseling him with simple but keen insight and tender compassion.
Vogel doesn’t let Rogers off scot-free, expecting some vulnerable reciprocity, and this is where Rogers becomes an intriguing enigma.
He’s open about how he copes with life’s challenges, i.e. the ascetic disciplines he cultivates, but Rogers skirts any actual confessions. In those vulnerable moments, he takes on the persona of his puppets, placing them on his hand and communicating to Vogel through those safe avatars.
In doing so, even as he avoids his own specific struggles, Rogers gets to the root of all struggles, a root that isn’t necessarily a who or a what or a why (as they very from person to person, from experience to expereince) but, rather, one’s response to those experiences, those people, those events, whether a person’s response is chosen or the result of protective instinct.
Through it all, there’s a “this guy can’t be real” aspect to Rogers, and not just in his unwavering generosity of spirit. Rogers’ innocence is so contrary to who we are that it can come off as strange or, at times, even creepy. But the fault for that perception isn’t in Rogers, it’s in us, whether present simply by the slow tide of cynicism or, in the case of Lloyd, something deeper.
Liberties are taken with these events set in the late 1990s, most notably in changing the name of real-life Esquire reporter Tom Junod to Lloyd Vogel (with Junod’s full permission). At times, his daddy issues play out with a TV-level melodrama, as do a few scenes between Lloyd and his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson, This Is Us). Unsurprisingly, screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster have made their careers in television; here, the more familiar a story or emotional beat is, the more conventional it plays.
A gifted director can elevate convention, and that’s exactly what A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood has in Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?). Even with the script’s occasional bromides, Heller’s film never feels corny. That’s no small achievement, especially since Heller doesn’t use a gritty edge to avoid schmaltz.
From the tranquil pacing of shots and scenes to the music that emulates Rogers’ program — and especially in the clever way that transitional motifs are visualized in aesthetic homage — Heller imbues the film’s tone with Rogers’ kind, temperate character. Heller also risks some jarring tonal contrasts at key moments of internal conflict, and honestly I’m not sure if they always work, but the benefit of those off-kilter choices is that they keep potentially stale material from playing that way.
On balance, however, Heller’s creative instincts are impressively deft; a wonderful example is seen early on. It’s in the transition from the film’s warm intro to the first mention of Lloyd, and how his latent trauma is beginning to manifest. It’s slight yet striking, and that simplicity makes an impact. Heller’s whole movie is like that.
The cast is exemplary in this regard, too, matching the timbre that Heller’s carefully crafting. That’s especially true for Hanks who wisely stops short of impersonating Rogers and instead embodies an affectation worthy of the man. (Indeed, if Hanks had leaned any more heavily into Rogers particular style of speech, he would’ve slipped into a Gump-ish drawl more than he already does.)
Heroes are often acknowledged for their courage, valor, or sacrifice. Fred Rogers is a hero, but for something entirely different: his purity. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is a paean to that purity, to the unassuming benevolence that Rogers lived by, and to the life he inspires us to emulate.
Even so, as one final poignant moment suggests, Rogers wasn’t a walking saint. He was human, just like you and me. This action, right before the credits roll, is simple but arresting, and it hints at the burdens that Vogel asked Rogers about but that Fred never revealed.
By allowing us to see this private moment, Heller humanizes Rogers from the pedestal of unreachable virtue that we’ve all placed him on. Acknowledging that flawed humanity is what makes Rogers’ purity heroic, and attainable.