VOD film review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
James R | On 09, Nov 2020
Director: Marielle Heller
Cast: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys
“Sometimes, we have to ask for help. And that’s okay.” Those are the words of Fred McFeely Rogers, known by millions of kids across the USA as “Mister Rogers”, a children’s TV presenter and a beacon of positivity. In the UK, where Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, that name won’t mean very much, but this thoughtful, kind-hearted biopic is a warm and winning demonstration of why he was so influential for so many families.
Something like a live-action equivalent of Sesame Street – think Blue Peter meets David Attenborough – Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood was a show that focused on education, including emotional intelligence, tackling such issues as death and family break-ups with grown-up maturity, childlike compassion and a profound simplicity. While the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? gives us an introduction to that philosophy (read our review), A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood aims for something deeper, digging beneath the surface of the smiling, friendly figure to examine the real man beneath.
That’s certainly what journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) aims to do when given a chance to interview and profile the man. Planning for something more than just a puff piece, he’s a cynical writer (inspired by real-life reporter Tom Junod) with a bitter streak that brings a mocking outlook to his encounters with Fred. He’s contrasted superbly by the casting of Tom Hanks in the role of Fred, who takes to the part with the kind of magnanimous humility that makes you feel like you do know who this Mister Rogers after all. He’s charmingly, disarmingly open in his manner, even more so than Tom Hanks is off-screen, and remains unflappably calm and unquestioningly accepting, speaking in a sing-snog voice that in any other hands would be laughable, but here rings with sincerity.
While things start out with the potential for irony, it soon becomes clear that this is far from Jim Carrey’s darkly funny and heart-wrenchingly downbeat TV series Kidding, which started with the same TV persona as its inspiration. Rather, screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster steer a course through the darker moments to end up somewhere sunnier – a straight-faced drama that doesn’t shy away from being sentimental.
Rhys, who can do broken and spiralling antiheroes in his sleep, brings a brilliantly intense catharsis to a character who could seem contrived (Chris Cooper plays his dad, invented for the film), and it’s a joy just to watch these two people clash quietly and peacefully without any conflict, ultimately becoming mutually respectful friends.
If that sounds uneventful, you’re not only underestimating the double-act in front of the camera but also forgetting who’s at the helm: Marielle Heller, who deserved Oscars for the sublime Can You Ever Forgive Me?, is a master at observing delicately shifting relationships between opposing forces. She expands the tone of Mister Rogers’ own show, embracing its stillness and its gentle use of sound to craft a lingering, absorbing world – the kind where puppets and cardigans feel sweet not silly, and where you can lose yourself in the restorative pleasure of simply being kind to other people, with no judgement, prejudice or ounce of cynicism.