I didn’t grow up watching Mr. Rogers, he wasn’t someone we watched in Quebec. So I didn’t know anything about it, or barely anything until I sat down last year to watch the incredible documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbour? By the end, I left the theatre in tears and nothing but love for a man that I didn’t grow up watching. And then, Marielle Heller, who directed the great Can You Ever Forgive Me? from last year, was announced to be directing a film about Mr. Rogers with Tom Hanks attached and I was in. Well, let me tell you something, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a beautiful love letter to the man himself. In Heller’s hands, the film becomes so much more then it could.
The interesting thing that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood does is that it decides not to be a simple biopic of Mr. Rogers. I think that would have been too much because it would have come out just a year after the release of the documentary. Instead, the film decides to do something else and puts, in a way, Mr. Rogers has the antagonist of the story. It’s an interesting concept since Mr. Rogers is such a beloved figure. The film decides to base itself on the Esquire article Can You Say… Here? by Tom Junod. Because of that decision, Mr. Rogers becomes a side character and is more there to help Lloyd (based on Tom Junod) accept himself and change his perspective on life. Because of that decision, the film doesn’t feel like a repetition of what we have seen before and feels new and exciting.
Matthew Rhys’ turns as Lloyd Vogel is so different than anything we have seen from him before. He is able to make Lloyd lovable when he could have been anything but that. Even when the character is insufferable, Rhys brings something to it, a pain that makes us understand where he is coming from. It’s subtle and small but it makes all the difference. But the film’s main event is the performance of Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers. Hanks has the difficult task of having to create a performance that didn’t feel like a caricature but also was believable. This was a man that was known and beloved so to make him believable was necessary. And Hanks nails it. It’s not his first turn where he portrays a character that existed, after all, he portrayed Walt Disney, but his turn as Mr. Rogers was so on point that it was impossible not to think you were watching the real Fred Rogers.
Just like the man himself, the message of the film is all about love, acceptance and forgiveness. It’s a touching tribute to Fred Rogers and never feels like it’s preaching to us. The story’s message is weaved into the film seamlessly, it’s a beautiful homage to Fred Rogers. The characters feel believable and real, they never feel like they are simply taken off the page. Their story is deep and portrayed with such pain and love that you believe it. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is capable of creating a story that pays homage to the men without being just about him.
Heller’s direction is subliminal in this film. Her presence behind the camera is subtle but works so well. My favourite thing that it did was the way it integrated the Mr. Rogers Neighborhood into the story, it became a device for telling the story of the film. It might have been jarring but Heller’s is capable and it creates an image that is lasting. The film’s transitions are also clever, the change of locations (mostly cities) are done through the clever use of the show’s set. It’s an interesting choice, one that could have felt like too much but Heller uses it just enough.
Marielle Heller’s touch in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is seen and felt but the touch of Fred Rogers is also present the whole time. The way it’s capable of weaving style with substance elevates the film and creates a beautiful homage to a man that changed the lives of many children.