Marielle Heller directed one of the more underrated films of last year, Can You Ever Forgive Me? starring Melissa McCarthy, which was a biopic about a relatively under-the-radar author’s attempt at forgery. Her newest film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, involves a popular figure who is anything but under-the-radar.
Fred Rogers is undoubtedly one of the most influential television icons. The ways he was able to communicate mature themes to children and give them positive methods of dealing with their feelings remains radical. And Marielle Heller finds a creative avenue into telling a story about Fred’s impact on one cynical journalist, one that honors his spirit with the warmth and creativity of Fred’s famous show.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood begins in an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, with Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks, because who else could play him?) entering his home to the memorable tune of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Fred then begins to show his audience pictures of his friends, stopping on a picture of the friend that ends up being the protagonist of our film: Esquire journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). What initially seems like a faithful recreation of Fred’s show reveals itself to be an inventive framing device in telling Lloyd’s story of learning forgiveness and understanding from the king of kindness.
From there, we step into Lloyd’s life. Married and with a newborn child, Lloyd is trying to balance fatherhood with his job an award-winning journalist. Things get more complicated when his estranged father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), re-enters his life. The embittered Lloyd isn’t too keen on reconnecting with his father, unable to accept what Jerry did in the past. Lloyd’s cynical worldview is tested when his boss gives him an assignment to write a profile on Fred Rogers. And through his various meetings with the compassionate Mister Rogers, Lloyd comes to learn what it means to forgive and lead with kindness and understanding.
It is clear from the first five minutes of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood that Marielle Heller refuses to follow the paint-by-numbers biopic formula that so many films about unique famous figures resort to (I’m looking at you, Bohemian Rhapsody). This is not a film about Fred Rogers, the man. This is a film about how the man’s compassion and thoughtfulness guided people towards a more positive life. And Heller infuses her film with that same compassion and thoughtfulness, in boldly understated ways.
One of Fred’s signature qualities is his, in talking to someone, treating them like they are the most important person in the world. And Heller gives us multiple scenes of Fred and Lloyd simply talking to each other, for extended periods of time. And it’s in these scenes that Fred slowly pulls back the curtain on Lloyd’s emotional struggles, and in so doing, reveals his own insecurities. Fred’s ability to deflect questions and turn them back on Lloyd shows a particular vulnerability that is only outmatched by his unbridled attention and care towards whoever he’s speaking to.
One particular scene sees Fred asking Lloyd to join him in a moment of silence, in order to reflect on those who love them. And Marielle Heller has us sit in on this moment of silence, uninterrupted, as we see Lloyd’s emotions come out. It’s a beautiful scene made all the more effective by Heller’s willingness to hold us in that moment for as long as she does. Another scene is almost Charlie Kaufman-esque in its surrealism, as Lloyd becomes a guest on Fred’s show. These are just two of many ways that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’s director creatively conveys Fred’s genuine essence.
It’s almost too perfect to cast one of film’s most likable actors as Fred, and it’s a testament to Tom Hanks’s talent that he still manages to disappear into the character of Mister Rogers. Hanks adapts the cadence and rhythm of Fred’s speech, without reaching towards a pitch-perfect impression. He sounds like Tom Hanks, but he speaks and moves like Fred, embodying his calm, soothing presence so well that you only see Mister Rogers. It’s a selfless performance, instead of a showy impersonation.
Lloyd’s character arc serves as proof of Fred’s remarkable influence on the world, and the decision by screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster to have Fred be a supporting character in Lloyd’s story is an inspired way to communicate Fred’s impact. And Matthew Rhys plays Lloyd very well, but he is portrayed as extremely cynical in the film’s earlier scenes, to the point that when his character does eventually turn, it feels almost too sudden and jarring, rather than a gradual shift. And while the swift nature of his change of character may speak to Fred’s immediate impact, it feels a little too neat as it is presented here.
Susan Kelechi Watson is great as Andrea, Lloyd’s wife, who wants nothing more than for Lloyd to forgive his father and follow in Fred’s kindness. And Chris Cooper, who has played this type of character before, finds the right balance of despicable and remorseful. The production design lovingly recreates the famous set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, along with a nostalgic, piano-based score by Nate Heller.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood beautifully conveys Fred Rogers’ enduring impact on the world, and stands as a furthering of Fred’s lessons about forgiveness and kindness. Marielle Heller approaches the material with inventiveness and compassion, as does Hanks. And while the protagonist’s character arc still ends up feeling a little too neat, the film’s purpose still rings true. This film would actually serve as a great companion piece to last year’s incredible documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. We need to hear Fred’s wisdom and advice now, more than ever, just as we need creative, distinctive voices in film. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood gives us both.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is rated PG, and it hits theaters this weekend.
All images courtesy of Sony Pictures.