Director: Marielle Heller
Starring: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson and Chris Cooper
Cinematographer: Jody Lee Lipes
The day was November 1, 1988 – when Tom Junod’s historical article debuted on Esquire Magazine’s front page within the heroes category. The piece, titled Can You Say… “Hero”?, was a profiling of beloved TV personality Fred Rogers, who was the ultimate champion for believing in a child’s right to express his or her feelings and being comfortable with them. After reading the article, it becomes obvious how big of an impact Rogers had on Junod’s life. In truth, that’s just the kind of person Rogers was. He impacted the world simply by believing in the power of being yourself.
Heller’s feature, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, captures Rogers’ magic of positive influence in a richly heartwarming way. The film, inspired by Junod’s article, follows Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), the sometimes harsh and cynical investigative journalist who was assigned to write a puff piece on Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). Reluctantly, and ready to call his bluff, Vogel sets out to confront Fred’s kindness and interviews him for his write-up even though he has an assortment of problems and responsibilities to deal with himself.
As with any influential figure in the world, it’s almost impossible to capture the essence of such a beloved person. But A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood does so with care and affection for its subject. There’s a sweetness to the script unlike anything I’ve seen this year even though the focus is on Vogel’s life. Truth be told, the essence of Fred Rogers- his kindness and care for beings- is felt even when he is not on screen.
But what made the film so captivating for me was how the script called for self reflection. Even though I’ve never experienced Vogel’s exact estrangement from a parent or duress of having to take care of a new family, it was easy to submerge myself within the context of Vogel’s circumstance. And that’s because at the end of it all, the film is about basic human emotions: forgiveness, despair, guilt, anger- feelings we’ve all felt before. All feelings Mr. Rogers taught us were OK to feel. And deep down, I understood Vogel. I’ve been at those low moments when true happiness was light years away or anger was always within reach. So to say that the film impacted me in ways I didn’t see coming is an understatement.
Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Mr. Rogers is partly to thank for that, though. I didn’t think it was possible, but he truly captured his essence of human kindness and the healthy digestion of feeling whatever it is you need to feel. His performance alone, from the minute he came on screen took me back to that little girl who would hold everything in until Mr. Rogers explained how great it was to express yourself no matter what you felt.
Director Marielle Heller found a way to make her feature centered around the likeness of Fred Rogers emotionally captivating, joyous and moving. There’s also a stylistic choice that, at first, took me off guard but proved to be a smart and impactful one. In particular, the feature plays like one long episode of Mr. Rogers with Vogel as the guest example. Furthermore, there’s an odd puppetry/animation with which the scenes transition, making for a creative feature and a fun watch. Simply put, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is so easy to like. Even for those inclined to believe that people can’t all be good will find positives from the film. But it’s like Tom Junod once wrote of his beloved friend:
“Fred Rogers has been doing the same small good thing for a very long time”