It’s kind of a funny thing to say about someone who radiated wholesomeness with every breath he took, but Fred Rogers was, beneath the smiles and cardigans and softly delivered affirmations, a pretty radical figure of American pop culture. On and off for thirty-years, the one-time Presbyterian minister used his platform to promote values all but absent from the landscape of television and public discourse: compassion, patience, emotional honesty, a commitment to never talking down to children or minimizing their feelings. That made him more than just a force of genuine cultural good. It made him, in his own gentle way, countercultural. Of course, Rogers’ generous and touching worldview looks even more abnormal from the viewpoint of our present time, which may account for the second cultural life it’s been enjoying through memes and hit documentaries.
Undoubtedly green-lit to capitalize on the revival of fandom, Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is technically set in the late ’90s, a few years before Roger’s retired and even a few more before he died of cancer. Yet in a more indirect sense, it’s very much about the collision of the late entertainer’s philosophy with the combative raging spirit of our present. Not surprisingly, the film plays like a celebration of Rogers’ kindness as a balm for the unkind age; that it never drifts fully into gushy worship is thanks to Heller’s attempts to find a few cracks in her subjects saintliness.
Thankfully, this isn’t a biopic. (Why would we even need one after Morgan Neville’s documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, laid it out last year?) In fact, Rogers isn’t even the main character of this movie, which instead treats him more like a kind of fairy godfather figure, floating into the narrative to impart some desperately needed emotional wisdom. Written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood instead adapts the perspective of Lloyd Vogel (a steady, nuanced Matthew Rhys), a man on the verge of several crises at once. A new father and acclaimed Esquire magazine reporter, Lloyd’s been assigned, much to his annoyance, to write a profile on Rogers (Lloyd is based on writer Tom Junod, who caught the same assignment for Esquire back in 1998). Meanwhile, his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) has started to lose patience with Lloyd’s simmering neuroses, including his lingering resentment for his deadbeat dad (an appropriately pathetic Chris Cooper). When the old man turns up at the wedding party for Lloyd’s sister, the son can’t help relitigate his father’s decision to abandon their mother on her death bed, and their showdown ends in blows.
In a very savvy casting feat, Rogers is played by another icon of American wholesomeness, Tom Hanks. The film begins with a recreation of the famous opening sequence of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, where we see the Oscar winner mostly nail the mannerisms and Rogers’ clean enunciations, while also introducing Lloyd’s story. Hanks immerses himself in the role of the happy-go-lucky charmer who takes take a photo of everyone he meets and embraces his appeal along his fans, even singing his theme song along with them on a New York subway. (This mawkish moment may feel heavily contrived, but Junod does include it in his story.) But after flying out to Pittsburgh post-dad scuffle, Lloyd watches from the sidelines of the cozy living-room set, where he’s taken aback by the sincerity of his interview subject. Is Rogers really this impossibly nice or is “Mr. Rogers” a façade he has the responsibility to tear back?
The tension between a grumpy writer and a kindly national hero is the stuff of cliché, but A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood finds an interesting route. Though Lloyd’s nagging problems with his wife and father follow a traditional arc, it’s his conversations with Rogers that deepen the material with each encounter. Even as Rogers hints at his family hardships, the odd chapter of his career where he left the show, and admits to some family estrangement of his own, he excels at deflecting questions about these subjects in favor of universalizing his problems. At their best, these encounters echo James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, a similarly chatty look at the reporter tasked with investigating the life of David Foster Wallace. Both movies explore the intellectual process of mapping out a view of the world through conversation. It’s just that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood does it in more sweet terms that might obscure its deeper intentions.
Heller seems to recognize the conventional, therapeutic arc of the material. And to compensate, she offers a few reality-bending flourishes, using Neighborhood-style miniatures for establishing shots, adopting a (somewhat distracting) fourth-wall-breaking framing device, and even staging a slightly nightmarish dream sequence on the set of the show. Some of these touches are hokier than others, but they all speak to the often uncommented-upon weirdness of Rogers’ trailblazing program. Heller’s biggest contribution is the space she provides her actors to find the truth and honesty in a scene. Her compositions and use of space remarkably engage with the suppression, anger and relief that’s at hand for Lloyd. While also, oh-so subtly diving into and dissecting the shades of masculinity. For all the attention and worthy praise of Hanks’ involvement, it’s Rhys who ends up being more crucial in all of this; summoning that poignant tension between vulnerability and standoffishness making a real character out of what could have been a stereotype.
There’s something tidy and even a little schematic about the story of redemption and forgiveness that this film ultimately tells. Similar to the documentary of last year, Heller’s movie is never quite as radical as the artist it lionizes. This isn’t exactly a challenging film, but it’s not exactly a “feel-good” movie either, it instead carries some challenging questions: can you turn your cynicism into kindness? Can you find a way to control your negative emotions before they control you? And while the film isn’t ever quite as radical as Rogers, it does communicate what made him special: the empathy, the curiosity, the regular encouragement of people young and old not to feel ashamed of their feelings. By the end, even the most cynical of viewers may feel like Lloyd, their defenses breached; eyes may roll, but they might well up a little, too. As we sit in the final wondrous and wordless moments of the film, we arrive at a final poetic gesture, a reminder that this sweet, assuming movie has deeper delicacies lurking beneath its surface, just like Rogers himself. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood‘s sincere, thoughtful approach and deeply felt sensibilities are ultimately a work of storytelling where both kindness and melancholy coalesce. It’s one Mr. Rogers would assuredly be proud of.