There is a sequence in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood that speaks volume to the massive reach Fred Rogers had on this world. Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) and Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks) take the subway to Rogers’ apartment in New York City. As the train ride begins, Rogers and Vogel are fairly silent. Then, two young girls call out to Rogers, asking him to listen. They begin singing the theme song to his legendary TV show, with more riders joining in as the song progresses. Soon, Rogers himself joins in on the fun, immensely grateful for the joy those two girls brought to him that day. Vogel watches on as the entire subway cart sings “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” still weary of who Rogers is as a person. But this scene captures the true essence of Mister Rogers, both the man and the “character,” as Vogel calls it. He may be a legendary children’s television host, but past all that, is a man who wills joy into people’s lives, even when the times seem darker and somber.
While the film itself is billed as a “biographical drama,” it is anything but. The movie starts near the end of Rogers’ life, where he is still leading his TV show, striking chords in the hearts of many Americans. A Beautiful Day plays out like a super-extended episode of the series, beginning with Rogers introducing the story to us. This is not the life and times of Fred Rogers, but a narrative about the relationship between Rogers and a cynical journalist sent to profile him. What is even more surprising (and arguably one of the film’s biggest strengths), is that the whole film feels like just another day for Rogers, even though it is a long struggle for Vogel. As Rogers’ agent Bill says to Vogel, “he likes people like you.” Rogers’ personality is one that relates to children, both on an emotional and physical level. He recognizes that children are incredibly stronger than expected of them, and he ensures that he never lets go of the things that brought him joy when he was younger.
This is why Fred is the perfect fold for Vogel. An award-winning journalist for Esquire, Vogel initially seems like he has the ideal life. A beautiful wife, a newborn son, and a fulfilling journalism career. And yet, Vogel is broken, forever angry at his father for abandoning him and his sister when they were children as they watched their mother die. But, when his father returns to his life, everything for Vogel seems to collapse, with his anger and sadness getting the better of him. Then, snap, Vogel is given the assignment to profile Rogers for Esquire’s upcoming issue about heroes. He travels to Pittsburgh to meet with the man himself, and in doing so, confronts the pain he has kept inside of himself for so long. Rogers is not a perfect man – his wife even says that they dislike it when he is referred to as a saint – but he is someone who values each moment and person in his life, because that is what our inner child would do, bright-eyed and all. It is when Lloyd begins to apply Rogers’ outlook on life to his own, that he begins to reconcile with his past.
The film, directed by Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), written by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue (the pair also penned Malificent: Mistress of Evil), is based on a 1998 Esquire cover story by Tom Junod. With Heller at the wheel, the film acts as a cathartic experience for those struggling with forgiveness. Her unique take on a rather dour narrative transports you within the mind of such a gentle soul. She asks you to drop your guard for just a moment, and return to a world of imagination. She excels at filling you with grief and heartache, but also witty and insightful dialogue, reminding viewers of a simpler time. And yet, the film forces you to take a look in the mirror, to face the pain you have hidden for so long. Heller never strives to emotionally manipulate her audience, but rather, uses Rogers as the first step in the healing process.
Tom Hanks is sublime as the cardigan-wearing children’s TV host, fully immersing himself in the make-believe world of Mister Rogers. Similar to Michael Fassbender in 2015’s superb feature Steve Jobs, Hanks may not be a dead ringer for Rogers in terms of facial looks, but he captures the spirit and heart of the man phenomenally. With every passing mannerism and quirk, Hanks enchants whenever he is on screen, showcasing that warm smile, and infectious happiness that Rogers was known for. Hot off his Emmy win for The Americans, Matthew Rhys is strong as Vogel, playing the cynical and battered journalist with nuance, but also with a slight tinge to his mind. He captures the brokenness of the man perfectly, wherein you hope with every moment that he will reach out to those around him.
The set design for A Beautiful Day is astounding, recreating Rogers’ iconic set, and, utilizing the series’ toy sets for scene transitions. Jody Lee Lipes, cinematographer for the film, slowly moves throughout each piece of the layered setting, showcasing the bright lights and simple figurines that make up Rogers’ life. Composing the music for the film is Nate Heller, and he shines with every beat and note. Heller’s emotional and earnest music adds to the building sentiment between Vogel and Rogers, and eventually, Vogel and his father. He perfectly weaves in classic compositions heard in Rogers’ TV series, with his own empathetic songs.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, top-lined by Marielle Heller’s beautiful and sensitive direction, is a fantastic piece of storytelling. Reminding viewers to never let go of their childhood joy, this tender and heartwarming film asks us to take a step back, and rethink the choices we make. It transports us to an imaginative world that never shied away from dealing with life’s problems, even if it was in a surrealist kind of way. Tom Hanks is the beating-heart of the film, but never takes away from Matthew Rhys’ shining moments as the film’s lead. In the end, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a therapeutic, but intimate and deeply satisfying feature that makes for one of the best films of the year.
Rating – 8.5/10
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood comes to a theatre in your neighbourhood on November 22, 2019.