Directed by: Marielle Heller
Written by: Micah Fitzerman-Blue & Noah Harpster
Starring: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper, Maryann Plunkett
The lasting impact of Fred Rogers centers on compassion and being able to speak on difficult subject matter with children. He would have an honest conversation on the reality of divorce with them and would frame it in such a caring way because he loved whoever he talked to. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood brings that tender care that Mr. Rogers was known for and presented an episode necessary for adults.
Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) has made for himself as an investigative journalist for Esquire magazine for being harsh on the individuals he interviews. He has a wife and a newborn child at home and when attending a wedding, he encounters his father portrayed by Chris Cooper. Lloyd has a complicated relationship with his father and the reunion does not go well. As part of his next assignment, he must do a profile on the beloved Mr. Rogers.
Tackling a film of this nature presents quite the test because it could fall into basic formulaic storytelling about how a guy changed after an interaction with someone like Mr. Rogers. Luckily, Marielle Heller took on this story and made it as beautifully unique as only she could do. She refuses to do basic storytelling as evidenced by her previous work in The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Can you Ever Forgive Me? The latter film could have been a simple biopic, but she added her own flair and her impressive framing made it such an engaging experience. She does the same with this one. Heller masterfully frames each shot to set the scene of every interaction with such precision. Unafraid to lean into these characters and reach for their insecurities, she digs deeper than most other directors would. With this film, she dismantles the idea of the perfect celebrity that everyone should look up to by grounding and humanizing Fred Rogers. Without a doubt, Marielle Heller stands as one of the great American directors going under the radar and with her first three films, she has established herself as an automatic draw for whatever project she takes on next.
Narratively, Lloyd questions what makes Rogers (Tom Hanks) so special, even inferring that the beloved television star plays a character when in front of the camera. Rogers deflects some of the questions well but has a willingness to speak on his wrongdoings. He tries to be kind to everyone but even he has a temper that he must control because he is human. There are things that wind up everyone including a person viewed as a saint by some. This vulnerability shown by the character allows the connection to truly foster with Lloyd as he faces his personal issue of trying to forgive his father.
Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers defines excellent and obvious casting. As some call Hanks “America’s Dad,” there was no better person to portray someone as kind-hearted as Mr. Rogers. Hanks captures the aura that made Rogers such a beloved figure. From the soft-spoken voice and the look that ensures that he listened to every word you just said. He embodies all that was great about the man and it got to the point where I would start to choke up every time he would appear on screen. That type of pure goodness does not come around often and this casting was a timely reminder about the importance of kindness in society.
While Mr. Rogers serves as the selling point of this film, the arc belongs to Lloyd as he has to battle the fact that his father wants back into his life. He has to take on an assignment that he sees as being below him because he sees himself as an investigative journalist after all, not to do puff pieces. Being a new father has him scared of repeating the mistakes of his own father and further carry on a negative tradition. These are not easy things to battle and that goes once again to the greatness of Mr. Rogers, as he can take the big abstract issues and bring them down to earth so that anyone can comprehend. From where Lloyd begins the film until the end illustrates a beautiful journey and Mr. Rogers contributes to that.
This is such a beautiful film that’s great for anyone to experience. Its structure resembles an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and seems necessary for adults at times. The beginning of the film opens nearly identically to the start of an episode of the show, down to the mannerisms of how Mr. Rogers would zip up his sweater. Perhaps it’s time to go back to basics and re-learn that we can be angry, but we must be careful as to how we act upon it. These foundational courtesies are integral to living in a well-functioning society.