In 2018 Morgan Neville gave us “Won’t You Be My Neighborhood”, a documentary that told the heartwarming story of children’s television icon Fred Rogers. The film brought back a rush of memories for many of us who grew up watching his program while introducing Mister Rogers to an entirely new and younger audience. Now Marielle Heller gives us an intriguing companion piece with “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”.
Where Neville’s film was more about Rogers the man, Heller’s speaks more to the influence he had. Her film is inspired by a real-life encounter between Rogers and Tom Junod, an accomplished investigative journalist for Esquire magazine. At Junod’s request screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster changed his name to Lloyd Vogel and adjusted a few details of their story. Junod was brought to tears after seeing the finished movie which captures the very essence of their meeting and eventually friendship.
Matthew Rhys plays Lloyd, a successful yet notorious writer living in New York with his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and their infant son. Lloyd is harboring some deep, pent-up anger towards his father (played by Chris Cooper) who ran out on his family at the worst time imaginable. Lloyd’s bitterness shows up in his work which over time earns him a toxic reputation.
As Esquire magazine prepares to do a series on American heroes, Lloyd is given the job of profiling Mister Rogers. He thinks the assignment is beneath him, but it turns out Mister Rogers is the only one willing to speak to him. And his caring but adamant editor (Christine Lahti) insists believing it will do Lloyd some good. So he sets out to interview Mister Rogers on the set of his show at WQED studios in Pittsburgh.
I can’t believe it has taken me this long to mention that Mister Rogers is played by Tom Hanks. The quintessential good guy actor playing the quintessential television good guy. It’s such a perfect bit of casting with Hanks deftly channeling Rogers’ kindly tone, subtle mannerisms, and his inquisitive nature that is always born out of his compassion. It’s a supporting role but obviously it’s the one most people will be going to see.
But that’s not to shortchange Rhys who gives a really good performance. Obviously the scenes he shares with Hanks are the highlights, but Rhys stands on his own and makes his character’s inevitable transformation both believable and uplifting. And when he does get with Hanks their characters’ connections are palatable and have an almost spiritual quality to them.
The picture we get of Rogers is that of a gentle genius at psychology and at getting children (and in this case Lloyd) to come to terms with and express their feelings. That really is the meat of the entire film and Heller is the right person to handle it. She has so many interesting touches (I absolutely love how she uses miniatures) and approaches the story with just the right sensibility. And in the end it’s kindness, hope, and compassion that wins the day.
VERDICT – 4 STARS