“When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary,” Fred Rogers once said. “The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we’re not alone.” Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was all about feelings, teaching children how to deal with all the emotions that were completely new to them. Rogers was a man of care and love, a bursting heart that could easily see what made a person who they are, and help them with their emotions, no matter what their age. Rogers was a man free of cynicism or snark, which makes director Marielle Heller such a strange, and yet perfect choice to present Rogers on the screen.
Last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? centered on misanthropic characters who were sick of their situations in life, and didn’t care who they hurt in order to find self-approval. While A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood never goes that far, it does also focus on a cynic, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), instead of than Rogers himself, played by Tom Hanks. Rather than focus the world of trolleys and puppets, Heller smartly turns her attention on the type of person who could use Rogers’ message the most, the type of person who would fit right in with Heller’s other films, in order to show the impact and transformative power that Rogers could convey within the people in his life.
Vogel is a fictionalized version of Tom Junod, who wrote the Esquire cover story “Can You Say…Hero?,” which A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is based. Lloyd and his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) have just had their first child, and much to the chagrin of Lloyd, his father (Chris Cooper) is now trying to be a part of his life after a troubled history. With the stress piling up, Lloyd’s editor sends him on an assignment to profile Mr. Rogers. Lloyd’s pessimistic nature makes him want to try and find the darker side of the beloved television icon, but upon meeting him, Lloyd finds Rogers to be exactly the optimistic, bright man that has been on the TV for decades.
Heller, along with writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, wisely make Rogers a supporting character in Lloyd’s story. Too much unflinching joy could be a bit much for the film, but by using Rogers sparingly, he lights up any scene he appears. It’s almost hard not to get choked up by the sheer kindness and understanding that Rogers shows all those around him. Hanks is a perfect choice for Rogers, so the compassion and affection he fee is clear without him ever having to say a word. The film’s most tremendously moving moment involves Hanks simply being silent for a full minute, in one of the most beautiful utilizations of fourth wall breaking in years.
While Heller, Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster know exactly how to capture the spirit of Rogers, they have a slightly harder time nailing down how to center the story around Vogel. His story is essentially a redemption arc, full of forgiveness and moving beyond pain, but the way that’s presented is often somewhat awkward. As the pressures of Vogel’s life become almost insurmountable, he starts to have strange visions where he sees Rogers in public places, or imagines himself as one of the puppets in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Rhys is consistently good as the curmudgeonly Vogel, but the strange choice to have Rogers almost haunting him subconsciously is an aspect that never quite works. One of Heller’s more lovely touches is showing the world as the tiny miniatures of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, bringing the magic of Rogers into the real world. Yet when Heller brings the real world into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, the result is tonally unwieldy.
But in our world that needs more kindness and heart, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a wonderful respite from cynicism, a reminder that a single person can change the world in both big and small ways.