On paper a biopic about someone who was relentlessly kind as Mr Rogers sounds like a disastrous idea for a film. Narratively speaking, a film needs conflict for our protagonist. He needs to be flawed so we can observe him learn and overcome said flaw.
But for anybody who hasn’t seen last years delightful documentary Won’t You Be my Neighbour? – children’s TV presenter Mr Fred Rogers was regarded as a national American treasure, a hero and to an extent, infallible. Not exactly the stuff of great drama.
But Director Marielle Heller’s approach to telling Mr Rogers story is not to frame him as the focal character but rather to show the ripple effects that his kindness had on those who were touched by his presence. And the end result is a film that’ll leave you feeling gooey in your seat and more optimistic about the world. Don’t let the trailer fool you, the main character of A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is not in fact Mr Fred Rogers – played in this film by (the only other person on this planet that might be regarded as “infallible”) Tom Hanks.
The film is based on the memoir of the same title by journalist Tom Junod. Screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster draw inspiration from Junod’s article but change up his name to Lloyd Vogel – played here by Matthew Rhys. Add a few more character flaws for our beloved Mr Rogers to help fix and you’ve got yourself the feelgood yarn of 2019.
Like Heller’s previous Oscar-nominated film Can You Ever Forgive Me?, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is set in New York in the nineties. Lloyd is an investigative journalist for Esquire magazine, however his exposé pieces have garnered him an unfavourable reputation with fewer and fewer people accepting invitations to be interviewed by him. Lloyd is also a husband and father to his public interest attorney wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and baby boy Gavin. They’re still in the adjustment period of becoming first-time parents and finding the ideal work/home-life balance.
After an altercation at his sisters wedding with his estranged father Jerry (Chris Cooper) – in comes Lloyd’s lifeline in the form of Mr Fred Rogers. Initially he dismisses his editors assignment to write a profile on Fred as a pointless puff-piece but after meeting the man on the set of his show; Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, Lloyd discovers more layers to the hoakey kids show presenter than he anticipated.
The dynamic between Lloyd and Fred is the emotional core of the film and both Rhys and Hanks are on excellent form. Hanks’ natural warm magnetism works perfectly to his advantage. Equipped with a pair of fake bushy eyebrows Hanks’ physical resemblance to Rogers is uncanny. However it’s evident he’s taken great care in capturing the posture and hand gestures of his subject.
Fred Rogers was a man who listened. He took his time to wait for people to respond to his questions. In this day and age the sound of silence is often an uncomfortable experience for most but Heller adopts Fred’s patient demeanour into the way she paces the film. At times A Beautiful Day can feel like it’s moving at a glacial pace – there are moments which purposefully stop and let us sit in the moment. At times it can often feel like life is whizzing past and we forget to stop and smell the roses. Of course that’s just one of the many positive messages of the ethos Fred Rogers that Heller excavates.
The prickly relationship between Lloyd and Jerry carries many of the thematic issues. The most visible one being masculinity in crisis. Lloyd’s inability to deal with his emotions is aided by a charming scene between himself, Fred and his TV-show puppet friends. When Jerry’s health takes a turn for the worse its the sage advice of Fred that gives Lloyd the courage to confront his father and let go of his anger. As Fred says “forgiveness is when you make a choice to release a person from the feelings of anger we have at them”.
The film has a lot of charm in the way that it’s edited together. Heller cleverly (and seamlessly) cuts between the classic 4:3 TV aspect ratio within Fred’s neighbourhood of make-believe and when we transition into Lloyd’s world we glide back into widescreen.
To summarise, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is the warm cinematic ray of light this world so desperately needs. With the impossible-to-resist themes of kindness, compassion and forgiveness this comedic drama is guaranteed to warm you hearts and tickle your funny bones.
4/5 Stars ★★★★☆
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD premiered at TIFF 2019 & is set for release on 6TH DECEMBER in UK Cinemas
FILM TWEETS & REACTIONS @LUKEHEARFIELD ON TWITTER