There’s a brilliant scene in Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood where Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) and journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) board a US subway train. While in mid-conversation, an impromptu sing-a-long of the theme song to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood begins. In that direct, uber-cynical moment, we are all Lloyd Vogel in this scene, wondering what reality, hemisphere and most likely planet we’re living on. Because, no doubt it is strange and unfamiliar; we’re not used to moments of random spontaneity, yet Heller’s scintillating direction just gradually eases you into the moment to the point of sentimental acceptance.
The subway scene is just a small taste of what A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood entails. I had the privilege of watching the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? which made its London Film Festival debut last year. As mentioned in my review, the UK didn’t have a Fred Rogers figure – the closest (and worldwide) equivalence would be Sesame Street. But as a documentary (which I urge everyone to see), it brought resounding and poignant enlightenment for those who didn’t know of Fred Rogers’ trailblazing work and talent. And it’s hard to walk away from that film without feeling something emotionally. The apprehensive fear going into Marielle Heller’s film was wondering whether it could live up to the highs of Morgan Neville’s insightful documentary. While the directions respectfully differ, and Heller’s vision is as assured as ever, the complementary spirit remains the same – the world could still use someone like Fred Rogers.
The incredible inventiveness behind A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood comes from the outset, far removed from the tropes of a traditional biopic but crossed between a charming, surrealist blend of real-life reality, and the TV show that made Fred Rogers famous with all of its low budget production values and homely vibes. But instead of Tom Hanks front and centre, it’s Matthew Rhys as its lead. Some would suggest that move is a slight cop-out, considering that Hanks is on every marketing material, trailer and advert. But the move only enhances the film’s genuine motivations – this is not about Mr Rogers, or some safe, ‘by the numbers’ tale that recreates his life. As if the film adaptation knew it couldn’t compete on that wavelength, if you want that level of factoid information, Neville’s documentary is your best port of call. It takes a different approach – this is about the impact Fred Rogers had on ordinary people.
It’s easy to see why the perspective change works because with all due respect, journalism and cynicism are never far apart. And from an honest confession (because it affects film criticism too), it is an unspoken tool, helping to create objectivity where we can easily separate between our emotions and doubts depending on how it affects us. But when a film carries the mechanisms to genuinely surprise us, as if we are watching Paddington or Mary Poppins Returns for example, then the results are deeply moving. A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood carves out that same emotive resonance.
At the heart of its simple story, Matthew Rhys justly carries that jaded, super-cynical look, filled with subsequent anger relating to his relationship with his father (played by Chris Cooper), the death of his mother, a new baby on the way, and using his journalist work as an excuse to run away from his problems. When tasked by his editor to write a small piece on Fred Rogers, he is an outsider looking into Rogers’ magical world that’s filled with kindness, puppets and the land of make-believe. Lloyd sees Rogers as an enigma. Rogers sees Lloyd as someone who needs a helping hand, instantly recognising the troubling signs. The fun the film has is watching the two trade their eventual positions between interviewer and interviewee, knowing there is so much more behind Rogers’ stardom than a simple ‘puff piece’ article.
What Heller and fellow scriptwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster do is put Lloyd’s story into an empathetic context where it draws active, relatable parallels between his life and our own. Surprisingly (and admittedly not the same scenario as Lloyd), I began thinking about my difficult relationship with my father and my love of my mother (both who have sadly passed away), the continuing grief left by their absence and finding the strength and courage to deal with everyday life. And just like its charming opening where Hanks as Rogers presents this magical tale, through Lloyd, he’s actually speaking directly to us, telling us it’s ok to feel the emotions we feel, listening when others may not have the time or simply taking a moment of silence to think about the people in our lives. It’s one of those rare occasions where a film can unsuspectedly move you. I sensed that impact after watching the press screening with critics as we shared our personal stories. It wasn’t choreographed, it wasn’t planned, but somehow the film managed to lift that veil. And if you ever wanted to experience the self-revelatory power of filmmaking and what a film can do or mean for someone in opening up or confronting the struggles that hurt us the most, then look no further.
It’s difficult to talk about A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood without freeing some emotional burden off your shoulder. This is a film that is always reminding you of perspective. Simplistic as it may sound, but in an ever-increasing modern dialogue about attitudes, mental health and well-being, Marielle Heller’s film is beautifully layered and therapeutic. It may be a brief acknowledgement, but it’s a safe, collective way of engaging its audience with the hope that it’s never too late to change.
But what makes this film cohesively work between its imaginative and real-world circumference is the outstanding supporting performance by Tom Hanks. As everyone’s favourite actor (if not, re-address pronto), Tom Hanks was born to play Fred Rogers, carrying his spot-on mannerisms and gentle tone that is near faultless. And again, if you’ve seen the documentary, the more you begin to appreciate Hanks’ nuanced performance. It’s not just about the perceived signs of perfection and his words of wisdom. It’s the small opportunities where Hanks allows himself to be vulnerable, embodying all of Fred Rogers’ channelled existential fears into his puppets, his occasional signs of deflection to wrestling the duality of fame with his on and off-screen persona. He was (and always has been) human, after all, dedicated to every individual he met, and Hanks portrays Rogers with a natural restraint and honest sincerity that sometimes when he’s not doing anything or taking long to answer a question, he’s doing a lot more than you would typically imagine.
And once you reconcile with the film’s inward perspective, you realise how lovely it is to have a film like A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood in your life because it reveals so much more than what is initially perceived. Heller’s direction is equal doses of nostalgia, comfort and warm-hearted kindness without sacrificing or trivialising the hardships and challenges faced by people. Under any other director, this could have been a misguided misstep. But here, as a fitting tribute to Fred Rogers’ legacy, with all of its quirky ingenuity and resolute application, just illustrates how truly special this film is.
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2019. Out in UK cinemas 31st January 2020.