“It’s good to talk.” So goes the old adage of Mr. Rogers and the new film that follows his teachings and unique impact on American society, Marielle Heller’s restorative A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. The film uses the simplicity and unassuming depth of those words to examine how learn and hold on to pain, certain that there is nothing more dramatic than two people connecting. The two people on the film’s mind are a journalist named Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) and his subject, the incomparable Fred Rogers, played by Tom Hanks as no other performer could have. It’s largely, achingly, two men talking. Or sometimes, for one of them, struggling to talk.
Adapted by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster from a Rogers profile by Vogel, the film surprisingly takes on a metafictional structure of a Mr. Rogers Neighborhood episode to a magical, quietly daring effect. The lesson it tells is Lloyd’s lingering anger and his inabilities to communicate them, simmering in a long-developed rage for an absentee father (Chris Cooper) that is beginning to impact his own marriage with his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and his sense of fatherhood. When Lloyd (a stand-in for real-life journalist Tom Junod) is assigned to profile Rogers for a Heroes issue for Esquire, he cynically aims to uncover the “real” Rogers behind the beloved persona. Instead, Rogers not only proves to be exactly the patient empath of everyone’s childhoods, he also becomes an agent of reconciliation for Lloyd.
What happens over the course of the film is a series of gentle subversions of our expectations. Rogers isn’t the film’s protagonist, so it’s a stretch to call the film a biopic; an invocation is more like it. This is just one of the first ways the film places us in Lloyd’s shoes, as if predicting our wariness of a potential facade or a possible fact that unlocks it all. But if there is some secret to be found in Rogers, Neighborhood finds purpose in refusing conjecture. Such answers aren’t as simple, or less private, for Rogers as they are for the rest of us. He just happened to teach us how to love ourselves and be less afraid.
Instead, this is a film more about our relationship with Rogers than the man himself, and that distinction reveals much of the film’s ample emotional intelligence. Contrary to the confines of biopic genre cliches, Heller wisely accepts a certainly unknowability about the man and the myth that was Fred Rogers. This was a man keenly aware of all of the baggage and expectation that his audience brought to him as a symbolic figure, and occasionally reductively so. In this regard, the film is as much a brilliantly observed study on the nature of celebrity as it is about male rage.
Even though it can only approximate the more personal details of Rogers (and Hanks’ confoundingly gracious performance does much to develop an unspoken weight behind Rogers’ care for others), the film succeeds in dispelling the notion of the man as a saintly figure instead of a person. This Rogers illuminated for us by Hanks and Heller is entirely, intimidatingly, unknowably human. What we have to wrap our head around is the great effort he put in being mindful and delicate with human emotions, despite their own real pains to cope with. In the film’s extended final, wordless shot, Heller finds more compassionate understanding of Rogers than any traditional biopic could have possibly achieved.
That observational brilliance is also mirrored in the film’s construction. Neighborhood captures the Rogers quality that went beyond empathy, and was intimately engaged with its audience. The film mimics his stillness soulfully and subtly, patiently unfolding in long takes with a clarity of vision, creating the kind of safe vacuum that was found in the space between Rogers’ words. Perhaps most miraculous about Heller’s molding of the material is how the film invites a kind of participation from us in the audience, especially in one fourth-wall-shattering passage around the film’s midpoint. She makes a film that invites us to engage with our own troubles and gratitude, a bold risk that’s all the more impressive for how it’s pulled off with genuine feeling instead of the maudlin.
Hanks’ performance cannot be denied as one of his best, more inhabiting the essence of Fred Rogers than attempting to look or sound similar. No easy feat, Hanks has to meet both our Rogers anticipation while projecting the compassion and quiet struggle that made him and individual, much as the film does. His embrace is one that’s tough to leave, more than just a ghost of what Rogers gave us but a distillation of what Hanks as a performer has done over decades of movies. It’s a performance that also makes us think about what Hanks has meant to the culture as an actor.
With an effortlessly calibrated performance by Rhys that vainlessly plumbs fury for forgiveness, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a film that engages us with our pain to move us past it, embodying its subject rather than spewing details about him. Judiciously punctuated with whimsy and humor, it feels as much like it is actively listening to us as its Rogers did. And perhaps continues to do.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was screened at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.