A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Subverts Expectations and Envelops Viewers
“Anything human is mentionable, and anything mentionable is manageable,” Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) tells journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) late in Marielle Heller’s expectations-upending A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Hanks delivers the line with trademark soft weight, sitting delicately at the edge of the Vogel couch, joining the entire family in an intimate moment of grief. Far more and far less than a biopic of the children’s television icon, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood encourages us to invite the spirit of Mr. Rogers into our own intimate moments, serving as an extended episode of its namesake’s show – this time for adults. Eschewing the hero-treatment of last year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood focuses instead on Lloyd Vogel, a prickly, grudge-holding investigative journalist for Esquire. Just days after a family wedding leads to a black-eye-inducing reunion with his estranged father (Chris Cooper), Lloyd is forced into an assignment writing 400 words on Fred Rogers for an upcoming issue on heroes in American society. Why Fred Rogers? Well, because nobody else would agree to be interviewed by Lloyd. If Lloyd and Mr. Rogers seems almost like too-perfect, tailor-made foils, it’s because they are. But each is played with such care and purpose by Rhys and Hanks, that what could have been a hokey story of Unlikely Friendship ™ becomes a genuinely enthralling push-and-pull between empathy and blunt honesty. Rhys is pitch perfect while Hanks is impossibly new – in a role that he so obviously seems born and bred to have played, it’s a shockingly transformative, controlled performance. As Lloyd’s relationship with his family deteriorates, his attachment to Rogers deepens. Nate Heller’s low-key score turns aggressive, piano keys pounding as Lloyd’s world turns upside down. The staging reflects his attitude toward life, as at various points, Lloyd turns his back and walks out on his boss, his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), and even Mr. Rogers. Rather than deal with his feelings, Lloyd runs from them. Of the many lessons that Mr. Rogers teaches, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood focuses on a simple one: forgiveness. Sometimes it takes another person to remind us that we can forgive ourselves, and that we should forgive others – even, and especially, those closest to us. And just as A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood seems poised to fall into the trite dénouement of a feel-good family drama, Heller makes subtle but radical decisions that transcend the genre. Finding power in silence, Heller and Hanks both revel in the quiet moments. By turning the volume down, Heller turns the camera outward, pushing her audience to reflect on the simple yet so often unspoken messages that both the film and Mr. Rogers espouse. Empathy. Forgiveness. Appreciation. Kindness. In a thrilling sequence in the era of big blockbusters, Mr. Rogers and Lloyd take a minute – a real, full, minute of silence – to wordlessly thank those that have loved them. It’s stunning. After Lloyd’s 400-word blurb turns into a 10,000-word cover article, Andrea tells him bluntly that “this isn’t about Mr. Rogers.” It’s not, and neither is A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – and that’s what makes it great. It’s a movie that believes in its audience, and in the power of television and film to make us better people. And if you don’t think that’s possible, well, do you want to be the one who lets Mr. Rogers down?