'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood' Nails What People Loved Most About Mister Rogers
The Tom Hanks Mister Rogers movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, is not really about Mister Rogers -- at least not in the way you'd expect. Yes, Hanks, who has set his mind to nobly embodying just about all of America's heroes, does play Fred Rogers, somehow capturing his serene stillness and the melodic lilt of his voice. But this hybrid of icons is not the focus of Marielle Heller's movie, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Instead of a film about the life of Mister Rogers, it's one that's effectively about putting his teachings into practice and the human capacity to heal, forgive, and feel. It's a movie infused with the spirit of Rogers that, like Rogers himself, doesn't pander to its audience.
Heller works from a script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster that, in turn, takes cues from Tom Junod's 1998 Esquire profile of Rogers, "Can You Say...Hero?" She casts Matthew Rhys as a fictionalized Junod-type stand-in named Lloyd Vogel, an investigative reporter who scoffs when he's assigned to write a 400-word celebratory blurb about Rogers for an issue on heroes. He's a writer known for taking people down rather than building them up. "Oh God, Lloyd, please don't ruin my childhood," his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) says after he explains the next piece he's writing. It's a universal feeling.
But Lloyd, of course, has his own baggage that he brings along to the interview, a tricky relationship with his dad (Chris Cooper) who just reentered his life. His bruised face -- from a fight with said father -- invites questions, but even without that, Rogers' naturally inquisitive soul would be inclined to cut through Lloyd's hard-won cynicism. To Lloyd's credit, Fred Rogers does seem like an incredibly frustrating interview, constantly responding to questions with one of his own. Hanks and Rhys nail these often funny interactions, the former the epitome of calm while the latter finds himself fraying.
Heller once again proves she is an incredible director of actors. Her films feel flush with honesty, whether she's telling the story of a teenage girl coming into her sexuality, a bitter literary scammer, or a national treasure. But she is also an inventive storyteller, and here, she takes the visual language of Rogers' eponymous television show and weaves it into the narrative. She toggles between Lloyd’s perspective and an "episode" of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in which Lloyd is the subject. Establishing shots of New York and Pittsburgh are substituted with Rogers-esque models of those skylines, making the cities look gentle, almost magical.
Unlike Lloyd, Heller and Hanks do not set out to ruin anyone's childhoods by presenting a Mister Rogers that somehow deviates from the paragon of kindness embedded in cultural memory, but they are careful not to deify him either. His greatest strength, they argue in tandem, is his ability to address his emotions and work hard on dealing with them.
It takes a little time to get used to Hanks as Rogers, the mix of the two familiars combining into something that feels askew. But once you settle into its rhythm, you realize the difficulty level Hanks is operating on, attempting to do something that's neither parody nor impersonation. Instead, he treats Fred Rogers as just another man, an uncommonly good one, but one who grapples with the same anger everyone else does. Rhys brings the tightly wound energy that sustained his work on The Americans to Lloyd, a man who learns to be vulnerable.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood will not be to everyone's liking. There will likely be people who complain that it doesn't spend enough time with Rogers and that, in staying with Lloyd, it loses sight of who the more interesting character is. But it's ultimately a greater gift to Rogers' legacy than just another retelling of his life. It's a reminder that the reason Mister Rogers was so good was that he gave his time to others, and it's a chance to let the spirit of his words spread just a little more.