Right off the bat, it’s important to note that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not a Fred Rogers biopic in the traditional sense. If you’d like a more complex and comprehensive view of the American children’s television icon – Morgan Neville’s splendid 2018 documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, offers a much deeper look at the gentle man, and the significance of his beloved program. Instead, this film focuses on the cultural impression Mister Rogers left behind, as viewed through the lens of his real-life relationship with one man in particular.
In 1998, a jaded magazine writer named Tom Junod (The Americans’ Matthew Rhys stars as the fictionalized version of him here, renamed as Lloyd Vogel) was sent to profile Rogers (perfectly cast as Tom Hanks) for a puff piece in Esquire. Unlike Rogers, Vogel is not one for optimism. Acclaimed for journalistic exposés, the cynical writer is known for digging out the ugly truths underneath his subjects. His distrust of humanity leads him to approach Rogers with skepticism. After all, no one could possibly be this nice and wholesome, right?
To his utter bafflement, after extensive research and interviews, Vogel comes to realize that Rogers is indeed the genuine article (you can read his eventual cover story here). These interactions between Vogel and Rogers form the warm heart of this lovely film. After first dismissing him as a corny children’s entertainer, Rogers’ philosophy of kindness, empathy and forgiveness ended up changing Vogel’s angry outlook on life, and more importantly, helped him deal with the root cause of his disillusionment – his estranged father (played by Chris Cooper).
As his relationship with his subject deepens, Vogel is disarmed enough to come to terms with how terribly his father treated him in the past, and overcome his anxiety over recently becoming a father himself. Balancing pathos, humor and love, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood offers a light touch and depth of feeling that play off each other in near-perfect balance. Much like how Rogers’ series helped kids grapple with serious emotional and real-world issues, this movie addresses some very deep-seated adult trauma with compassion and care.
Director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) inventively chooses to frame this journey of friendship and healing like a feature-length episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. From the miniature village and gentle tinkling music that greeted young viewers, this movie purposefully uses the familiar structure, songs and characters of the show to remind us that grownups would be better people if we tried to remember what it was like to be children. The clever production design even uses the vintage show’s toy-box aesthetic as a transition device and within the narrative itself.
From the moment Hanks slips on the red sweater and tennis shoes, our hardened adult defenses are broken down, and the result is profoundly moving. This is a transformative performance from Hanks, as he channels Rogers’ calm speech mannerisms and gentle demeanour with pitch-perfect accuracy. Rhys also does exceptional work as the unexpected star of a Mister Rogers movie. His role isn’t just the lead, he serves as the adult audience’s proxy, allowing us to first eye-roll, and then be won over, by Rogers’ empathy and decency.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a soft-hearted fable that works on you in an enchanting way, and reminds us of his most important lessons. It’d be difficult for even the most unidealistic among us to keep a dry eye through this film. In an era of fear and mistrust, it’s refreshing to see kindness triumph over cynicism. Heller and Hanks remember that Rogers was not about being perfect, or pretending that bad things don’t happen. Instead, Rogers confronted life’s greatest struggles by helping us find the courage to deal with negative emotions in a positive way.