Bring your tissues and your daddy issues, because Mr. Rogers is coming to heal you in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. But be aware: Though Tom Hanks is the headliner in this heartfelt biopic, this isn’t the life story of Fred Rogers. (For that, look to the heartwarming documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) Instead, director Marielle Heller’s much-anticipated follow-up to the savagely witty yet undeniably warm Can You Ever Forgive Me? centers on another jaded writer, whose life is forever changed by meeting Mr. Rogers. This is not a story of Mr. Rogers’ life, but of his influence, and how it can guide us today and every day if we choose.
Based on Tom Junod’s Esquire magazine article Can You Say…Hero?, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood stars Matthew Rhys as hard-nosed journalist Lloyd Vogel, who rolls his eyes when he’s assigned an interview with Mr. Rogers. Uninterested in doing the 400-word puff piece his editor requests, Vogel is determined to uncover the real man behind the cheery TV persona, and so heads to Pittsburgh to the set of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. There, he meets Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), who wears a guileless grin with that iconic red cardigan. So begins an unlikely and important friendship.
Wounded by the estranged relationship with his father (Chris Cooper), Lloyd has lost faith in mankind, and so looks at this “saint” with a cynical eye. He distrusts that anyone could be so effortlessly joyful and kind as Mr. Rogers. In a sense, he’s right. Don’t mistake me. It’s not that this movie will reveal that Rogers had some dark past, like internet rumors of tattoos and snipers would suggest. Instead, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood exposes how the Mr. Rogers we all grew up with was not a persona or a facade but a choice that a real, average man made every day. It was not effortless. Mr. Rogers did not live a life free from frustration, pain, and rage. He felt all those things. We cannot help how we feel, but we can choose how we react to those feelings. That’s the lesson A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood offers, as if it’s a very special episode of Mr. Rogers intended for all the grown-ups who still yearn for his warm-voiced words of wisdom.
Hanks is extraordinary as Fred Rogers. Rather than forcing the 63-year-old to slim down or slapping some facial prosthetics on to make him look more like Rogers, Heller allows Hanks to offer a performance, not a Saturday Night Live impersonation. He looks like Hanks with a side-part and a cardigan. But that playful skip in his voice, the soft physicality in his movement, and the warmth in his eyes captures the children’s TV icon so completely that it’s breathtaking from the first scene. Hanks will get an Oscar nomination in the supporting category for this role and it will be well-deserved. This is one of the most beautifully nuanced performances of his career. It’s no coincidence that it was guided by Heller, whose direction of Richard E. Grant earned him an Oscar nod earlier this year.
Admittedly, with Hanks shining so bright it’s easy to overlook the film’s actual lead. But Rhys proves the perfect foil to human sunshine, as all of Lloyd’s negative emotions boil over into dark looks, snide remarks, and even violent outbursts. In all his angst, he is us. Or more specifically, he is those of us who are fearful we are too broken to be a hero, to be like Mr. Rogers. As Lloyd lets Fred in, we see him soften. We see Rhys’s physicality change as tension drains out of him. We hear the strain slip out of his tone. We witness him heal, and see how we might too.
In the cornerstone scene of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Lloyd pushes and pushes Fred, hoping to make him break out of this nice guy act. He asks him a question that stings. As Fred responds, Hanks keeps constant the light tone and jaunty cadence that was the man’s signature, but in his eyes burns rage. You see it. You see it exists in Mr. Rogers and Tom Hanks, who is perfectly cast as a beloved figure who seems more symbol for mirth than man. But Fred will not give in to that rage. Rather, he speaks of how he processes such feelings. He goes for a swim. He plays the piano, hitting the low-toned keys hard to make a monstrous “BRAAAAMMMMM” sound. At first, this doesn’t satisfy Lloyd, because it sounds too simple. Letting go of anger isn’t easy.
We feel so justified in anger. We cling to it because we feel on some level like the person it is leveled at will pay by our wallowing in it. We guzzle it down and think it keeps us honest and alive. But anger is poison. Letting go is its antidote. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood wants to teach you how to let go. Because at a certain point, the anger is doing nothing for you and it’s getting in the way of you doing things for yourselves and for others. So—the film suggests—be like Mr. Rogers. Channel those negative feelings wherever you like, in piano, in puppets, in kindness toward others. Be the hero you saw him as.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not about Mr. Rogers’ life, but his legacy and how you can be a part of it. From the use of the show’s music, to Hanks’ impeccable performance, to the establishing shots done in handmade miniatures that seem plucked from the kid show’s set, this glorious tribute that shows how Mr. Rogers daily choice to be kind and vulnerable made the world around him a brighter place. It made everywhere he went Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. In one—of many—tearjerking scenes, he rides the New York City subway, where he is soon recognized by a batch of children, who excitedly sing the show’s theme song, until the whole car joins in, “Please won’t you be…my neighbor.” It’s a wonderfully heartwarming scene, but it also draws attention to those lyrics. Those words are engraved onto our hearts, but they are not just a whimsical theme song. They are a gentle call to action, to join Mr. Rogers in a radical revolution of love and forgiveness.
In the end, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood proves a superb companion piece to Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?. On the surface level, both are biopics about writers who behave badly. Yet, while the prior is far more acerbic than the sweet and nostalgic Mr. Rogers movie, both are radiant in their humor and humanity. Heller crafts tales that celebrate the virtues and flaws of her heroes, and so displays a remarkable emotional intelligence. She allows us into the lives of people who seem unknowable, and so provides a path to understand them and grow from their example. She makes movies that make us laugh, cry, then hit us at our core. She makes movies that we can’t just walk away from, but carry with us. If there’s any justice in Hollywood, this time she won’t be ignored in the Best Director race, because truly A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is one of the best films of the year.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It opens in theaters November 22.
Header Image Source: TIFF