A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Review

After the beautiful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor slayed hearts and flooded tear ducts last year, I admit to thinking, “Do we really need a fictionalized version of Fred Rogers’ story?” And then I saw A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and got my answer: we can never have too much Mister Rogers. Especially now.

And anyway, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn’t really about the life of Mister Rogers – it’s about an angry, broken journalist named Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). And my initial disinterest neglected one very important ingredient: filmmaker Marielle Heller. The director behind The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Can You Ever Forgive Me? crafts, with the help of writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, a magical, make-believe spin on Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire article “Can You Say… Hero?” Here Junod is transformed into Vogel, who bristles at a 400-word, puff piece assignment to cover Mister Rogers – with strict instructions from his editor to “play nice.” Lloyd doesn’t think the gig merits his hard-hitting investigative prowess, but the truth is that after a career of throwing his subjects under the bus in the name of journalistic integrity, Mister Rogers is the only person left willing to be interviewed by Lloyd.

When Lloyd goes to meet the man behind the cardigan, he’s pretty quickly disarmed. And really, so are we. Sure, we think we know what we’re going to get when America’s sweetheart Tom Hanks plays America’s Sweetheart Mister Rogers, but Hanks’ performance goes so far beyond imitation into embodying, even channeling. That genuine, tangible warmth, goodness, kindness, peace that Mister Rogers sent through television screens into our hearts for decades? Hanks is now sending it through the big screen. Seconds into his screentime and members of my audience were already sniffling.

It would be easy for Heller to rest on Hanks’ laurels, but A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood has so much more on its mind than one tremendous lead performance. The narrative framing is complicated and daring, a papier-mâché construction that takes us deep into the fantastical world of Mister Rogers’ imagination in order to tell Lloyd’s story. And what a sad story it is – yes, Lloyd is a talented journalist of some renown, and yes, he’s married to a wonderful woman (Susan Kelechi Watson taking our breath away as Andrea). He remains close to his fun-loving sister Lorraine (Tammy Blanchard) and he’s the father of a lovely baby boy. But his work and his relationships are all debilitated by the deep resentment he feels toward his father (Chris Cooper) for abandoning their family when Lloyd and Lorraine were just kids.

The serenity we feel in Mister Rogers’ scenes stands in stark contrast to the chaos of Lloyd’s life, and Rhys turns in a performance as absolutely affecting as Hanks’ in its own way. Lloyd is such an angry, unhappy man, who mutters with suspicion after his first meeting of Mister Rogers: “He’s the nicest man I’ve ever met.” It’s not a compliment when Lloyd says it.

But Mister Rogers’ calm, quiet kindness is the type that can move mountains, and soon even Lloyd cannot remain unmoved. Fred stays an enigma throughout the story – a wise choice after the illumination we received from his documentary – but there isn’t a moment of his presence that rings false. Heller recreates famous interviews and clips from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with Hanks standing in for Rogers, but these colorful devices are all just context for the real story here: once upon a time there was a very angry boy. And that boy met a very kind man. And the kind man changed the boy’s life.

There’s a moment in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood that will stick with me long after I’ve finished the film, a quiet moment. Lloyd is speaking to Fred’s wife Joanne Rogers (Maryann Plunkett), and he sort of irreverently jokes, “What’s it like being married to a living saint?” Joanne replies, thoughtfully, that she’s never been fond of the phrase “a living saint,” because it makes the way Fred Rogers lived his life – with kindness, compassion and deep insight into the human condition – an unattainable goal for the rest of us. “He works every day at this. It’s a practice.” A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood reminds us that we can all practice at being more like Mister Rogers. If Lloyd can do it, surely we can, too.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

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About the Author

Meredith Borders is a freelance writer and the Contributing Editor of the newly revived FANGORIA magazine. She and her husband own City Acre Brewing in Houston.