“Though of all races, the schoolchildren were mostly black and Latino, and they didn’t even approach Mister Rogers and ask him for his autograph. They just sang.”
If you’ve seen an ad or trailer for Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” perhaps you noticed the scene above. At first, even I thought this snippet of the movie was trying too hard to push my nostalgia buttons, but then I found these words in Tom Junod’s exemplary profile of Mr. Rogers, “Can You Say … Hero?” It’s the same profile that gives “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” its premise, but with a noticeable departure: Mr. Rogers isn’t the main character of the movie.
Set up much like a Mr. Rogers episode—complete with the show’s twinkling piano theme music, miniature sets and the star (played by Tom Hanks) arriving home, singing, changing his sweater and shoes—the movie instead follows Lloyd (Matthew Rhys), a cynical journalist assigned to write an inoffensive puff piece on the popular kid’s TV show host for Esquire. He rolls his eyes at the too-easy job and begrudgingly meets the sweatered legend, someone so venerable, even his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) asks him not to “ruin her childhood” with a hard-hitting article. But even his dyed-in-the-wool cynicism is no match for Fred Rogers, whose kindness and never-ending prodding questions get Lloyd to talk more about himself, his new foray into fatherhood, his strained relationship with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) and how it continues to affect him after all these years.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” isn’t so much a biopic as it is a way to look at the way Mr. Rogers affected generations of children, young and grown. If his character seems too simple, it’s likely because that’s how many people saw him, uncomplicated and confined to his on-screen persona. If his presence seems too good to be true—and trust me, it does many times throughout the film—sometimes, often the scene can be traced back to the article or an old episode. Others, of course, are very much made up by screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster. And yet, these fabricated scenes don’t feel so detached from the recreated stories. There seem to be few limits to Mr. Roger’s kindness.
The movie’s most delightful scenes usually revolve around Lloyd’s skepticism of that unending kindness. Rhys plays the part of a man hurt by his past well, his character has closed off certain emotions in order to survive, but that just won’t do when interviewing Mr. Rogers. Heller’s film gives him an emotional journey shaped by Mr. Rogers’ philosophy, with his profile subject doubling as a therapist. It’s a storytelling device that sometimes prioritizes his character development over their shared interactions, but it also answers the question of what can adults learn from watching Mr. Rogers.
While not exactly the spitting image of Mr. Rogers, Hanks convincingly imitates the mannerisms of the former minister-turned-childhood staple. He slows his speech to get Rogers’ soothing cadence, gives hugs and holds hands almost too freely, and walks with a vulnerability that reminds us that he’s not just playing a character on a TV show but a person with his own fears and pain. It’s a dream match of two well-known and well-liked personas, one kind actor portraying one of the kindest humans ever to work in entertainment. Hanks’ energy in the role wonderfully gets at what “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” wants to convey.
Following on the heels of two darker edged dramedies, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” Heller’s instinct to follow a flawed character—which compared to Rogers, could probably be any one of us—is right on. Along with cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, Heller balances the well-lit sets of the PBS affiliate where Rogers tapes his shows and the dark rooms where Lloyd does much of his research watching old episodes or reflects on the advice Rogers gives him about his dad. He’s isolated and gloomy in these scenes, but when he’s sitting across from Rogers, it’s almost as if the light from the host reflects back on the journalist, quite literally lighting his existence. Heller and her team’s devotion to incorporating references to his show and its new incarnation based on one of his favorite puppets, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” extends throughout the film, like in interstitial scenes of miniature sets of New York and Pittsburgh showing Lloyd traveling between the two cities or Nate Heller’s score which feels to be in conversation with the notes of the show’s theme song. It ties back to the book-end-like set-up of the movie where Hanks as Mr. Rogers speaks directly to the audience and introduces us to his friend, Lloyd, which so quickly reminds of the show millions of us once watched and taps right into those feelings.
As with Morgan Neville’s documentary “Won't You Be My Neighbor?“, the tears may flow freely due to nostalgia or from some subjects hitting too close to home, but “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” fits as a companion piece. Where the documentary offers a more complex view of the man in the red sweater and tennis shoes, Heller’s movie is more about the cultural impression Rogers left behind—his almost supernatural ability to calmly connect with so many and de-stigmatize the way we express or discuss emotion. It was a treat to visit Junod’s article after watching the movie just to dispel my own cynical reading, and find out just how much of Rogers’ scenes were quite true-to-life, including one of my favorite upbeat responses from Rogers to Lloyd’s incredulous expression: “Look at us—I’ve just met you, but I’m investing in who you are and who you will be, and I can’t help it.” There’s not been an era in the world where it wasn’t nasty, scary or mean, but for a time, so many of us were lucky enough to learn that it didn’t have to be that way. That’s the lasting power of Mr. Rogers.