A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Review
“Once upon a time, a long time ago, a man took off his jacket and put on a sweater. Then he took off his shoes and put on a pair of sneakers. His name was Fred Rogers.”
Taken from the 1998 published article “Can You Say…Hero” which inspired A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, this quote somehow perfectly captures the essence of the film. Or perhaps it is the other way round. Either way, watching Marielle Heller’s latest feature feels like Mister Rogers is sat by your side telling you this story himself like a fairy tale, unafraid of delving into the heavy issues that come with it.
The film follows hard-boiled journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) who is assigned the task of profiling the cherished children’s TV host Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). Determined to uncover the man beneath the character, and expose his teachings as a phoney act, Vogel instead finds himself slowly opening up to Rogers‘ empathic and kind nature. As their friendship develops, Vogel is forced to resolve deep-seated issues with his father (Chris Cooper) so that he, himself, might have a better chance at being a parent.
Heller leads us through the story of Vogel and Rogers at a confidently measured pace. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not a narrative heavy film and there is a self-awareness of this fact, instead leaning into the introspectiveness. From the very beginning of the film, as we zoom into the model of the neighborhood and begin an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood even featuring Hank’s rendition of the iconic “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”, Heller sets up a delicate feature that has a lot to say without ever forcing it on you. Regularly going back to this frame, we get to see Hank as a pitch-perfect Rogers talk directly to us, commenting on Vogel’s journey with a caring compassionate perspective and its hard not to want more of this whimsy and nostalgia.
Undoubtedly, if you’ve heard anything about this film it is that Hanks is outstanding in his role. Which is completely true. He is, however, equalled by Rhys who brings a relatively stock character (the hardened journalist) into fresh territory. Vogel, loosely based on writer Tom Junod, author of the Esquire article, is essentially a lens that the audience is asked to use to engage with Rogers' outlook on the world and is carried out with an assured subtlety.
So much of the success of Heller’s film comes from its playfully quaint tone, which includes replacing shots of the city with meticulously crafted model versions of them. Despite having only heard of Mister Rogers in recent years, I came out of this film feeling like I had just revisited my own childhood TV memories. This whimsy and nostalgic feel only develops as the film goes on, drawing out the melancholy, the hopeful, the childish. It’s all there, bringing compassion to the very personal drama that sits at the core of the film.
It is a story about feeling, about allowing yourself to feel. A modified archive clip of Mister Rogers on The Oprah Winfrey Show shows him telling adults to remember being kids themselves. Not just a tidbit of parenting advice, this idea stands for the film itself. Remember being a child, embrace that childlike curiosity and openness. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is being sold as the film we need right now, simply 109 minutes of wholesome storytelling. Maybe this is true, maybe not, but I cannot imagine anyone not leaving this film feeling just a little more hopeful.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is released Friday January 31st
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)
Dir: Marielle Heller | Cast: Enrico Colantoni, Matthew Rhys, Tom Hanks, Wendy Makkena | Writers: Micah Fitzerman-Blue (screenplay), Noah Harpster (screenplay)