TIFF REVIEW – ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’ is the warm hug we could all do with right now

Full disclosure – until last year, I had never heard of Fred Rogers. As someone living in the bubble that is Australia, the unassuming brilliance of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had somehow never reached our shores. It took Morgan Neville’s gorgeous and inspiring 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? to introduce the magic of Mister Rogers to those of us previously uninitiated.

After the documentary provided an intimate insight into both the public and private lives of Rogers, there seemed no need for a full-scale biopic. Thankfully, that’s entirely understood by the team behind A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which wisely places Rogers as a supporting character in a fascinating and uplifting true story of how the TV star changed the life of a cynical journalist.

For cinema’s first foray into a big-screen portrayal of Rogers, there was clearly no better choice to play the cherished entertainer than another beloved icon. In yet another role he was undoubtedly born to play, American treasure Tom Hanks captures the softly sweet charm, gentle warmth, and endless optimism of Fred Rogers like only he could, delivering one of the most endearing performances seen on screen this year.

While it’s unquestionably a supporting turn, Hanks owns this film from start to finish, practically begging to Academy to finally invite him back into their nominees’ club for the first time in 19 (!) years. Much like Rogers’ television program, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a deceptively simple piece that surreptitiously tackles heavy dramatic issues to wonderful effect. By the conclusion of the film, there wasn’t a dry eye in the whole damn house.

Based on the experiences of journalist Tom Junod and set in the late 90s, the film follows Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a gruff investigative journalist with a bad reputation for rubbing people the wrong way. Already exhausted by the arrival of his first child, Lloyd is deeply offended when his Esquire magazine editor (Christine Lahti) assigns him a puff profile piece on iconic television star Fred Rogers (Hanks) for their upcoming heroes edition.

As the article is only a 400-word piece, Lloyd is determined to fly to Pittsburgh and get the assignment accomplished as quickly as possible, so he can get back to covering far more serious subject matters. While their brief interview plods along amiably, Lloyd remains unconvinced Rogers is as saintly as his beloved television persona, namely due to his own crippling daddy issues.

Abandoned by his alcoholic father, Jerry (Chris Cooper) at a young age, Lloyd has been estranged from his deadbeat dad for years. When Jerry reemerges at the wedding of his daughter, Lorraine (Tammy Blanchard), it naturally ends in disaster, much to the disappointment of Lloyd’s wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), who longs for the pair to reconcile their differences.

After Rogers flips the interview and probes Lloyd for details on his personal life, the entertainer recognises a troubled soul in need of his wisdom. It becomes clear to Rogers the unresolved deep-seated resentment Lloyd feels towards his father is affecting his work, his marriage, and his happiness in general. While Lloyd initially resists Rogers’ attempts to help, the power of his influence soon begins to make an unexpected impact.

At its core, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not a Fred Rogers biopic, rather a powerful father-son tale that’s ultimately a testament to the power of forgiveness, positivity, and the immense gift to the world that was Rogers himself. His simplistic principles of love, friendship, acceptance, and kindness are eternally relevant and precisely the dose of warmth the world could use.

It was Rogers’ lifelong persistence for children (and grownups) to embrace their emotions rather than run from them. His mantra that it’s perfectly okay not to be okay sometimes is something that has seen a resurgence of late, but he was pushing the notion for literally decades. It’s when we refuse to acknowledge the sadness and the pain that problems occur. As Rogers would say, “It’s what we do with our feelings that matter.”

It’s this emotional avoidance Rogers instinctively recognises in Lloyd and precisely why he’s the man to provide a path to healing. There’s an unrelenting determination behind Rogers’ actions that’s terribly charming. He can tell when someone requires his help and simply won’t walk away from a person in need, no matter how hard they push him away. It’s here the film offers a few humorous moments, particularly Lloyd’s exacerbation and frustration at the icon taking such a devoted interest in his family affair.

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, a character like Lloyd would be an entirely unlikeable protagonist. He is inherently a bit of an asshole. After all, this is a man who is outwardly rejecting the brilliant guidance of someone most would kill to have as their own personal guardian angel. Yet, much as she did in last year’s supremely underrated Can You Ever Forgive Me?, director Marielle Heller finds the empathy in her lead character by tapping into the trauma at the root of their gruff exterior. Heller finds the pathos in her lead, inviting an audience to do the same.

But it’s Heller’s directorial choices here that are far more interesting and impressive than her earlier work. The film begins with a meticulous recreation of the iconic opening sequence of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and its quaint miniature toy neighbourhood, complete with the tiny Neighborhood Trolley chugging along and Hanks performing the famous “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” theme song.

It’s here Rogers breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly on the tale they’re about to witness, thereby using the television program as a framing device for the entire film. It’s a comforting technique to slide into Rogers’ world that immediately makes the audience feel welcome in his environment, particularly for those with fond childhood memories of the show.

In a curious twist, Heller replaces establishing location shots with further miniature toy cityscapes standing in for the real-world locations. While there’s little narrative purpose for this quirky stylistic choice, it perfectly compliments the tone Heller is setting, as if the film is just one extended episode of Rogers’ television program. And, frankly, it’s decidedly refreshing to see an adorable toy version of New York City (complete with the original World Trade Center) than the real thing we see in dozens upon dozens of films.

Less effective is a dream (actually, it’s more of a nightmare) sequence later in the film where Lloyd is shrunken down to toy size and becomes a character within Rogers’ television program. While it’s a visually intriguing moment, the scene runs far too long and feels completely out of place within the overall picture. It seems like Heller was reaching for something intentionally jarring, but the sequence mostly falls flat on its face.

Likewise with a schmaltzy scene where a crowd of adoring fans break into a spontaneous sing-a-long rendition of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” when they spot Rogers on a subway train. According to Junod’s Esquire article, this did indeed occur during his time with Rogers, but in the film, it feels rather inauthentic and heavy-handed. Then again, it certainly fits Heller’s playful childlike theme, so it’s entirely forgivable.

For all that will be made of Hanks’ magnificent performance, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is led by Rhys with an impressively nuanced performance that will likely be forgotten this awards season. As the damaged son still saddled with the baggage that is his childhood trauma, Rhys plays Lloyd with both steely grit and crippling vulnerability, all wrapped up in plenty of defensive cynicism and sarcasm that’s the total antithesis to Rogers. His character arc cements the entire film and is a genuine joy to follow, as are Rhys’ interactions with Hanks.

But it should come as no surprise Hanks can’t help but entirely steal this film with his gorgeous and heartwarming take on Fred Rogers that should launch him straight to the front of the already-crowded Best Supporting Actor race. Capturing Rogers infectious spirit and calm demeanour, Hanks expertly transforms into the beloved entertainer without falling into farcical impersonation. Whether it’s the slow cadence of his speech, the endless patience for those around him, or the inviting smile that could capture anyone’s heart, Hanks conveys Rogers as only he could.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood ultimately highlights the immense effect Rogers and his ideals could have on someone willing to accept his teachings. Forgiveness is a difficult path for most to tread, but we see here the pitfalls of carrying grudges and what can occur when we finally let go. Without ever feeling too preachy, the film has the power to educate and enlighten those of us who find it hard to part with anger over past grievances. Yes, you could walk away from this film learning a thing or two, which would surely make Rogers smile.

At a time when kindness is in short supply, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood feels like the warm hug we could all do with right now. It may be dismissed by some as being too saccharinely sweet, but that was a barb often thrown at Fred Rogers, so it seems only fitting for this film to follow similar sentiments. In the capable hands of Heller, who elicits impeccable performances from both Rhys and Hanks, this is a gorgeous film worth celebrating.

Distributor: Sony Pictures
Cast: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper, Enrico Colantoni, Carmen Cusack, Noah Harpster, Maddie Corman
Director: Marielle Heller
Producers: Youree Henly, Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub, Leah Holzer
Screenplay: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster
Cinematography: Jody Lee Lipes
Music: Nate Heller
Production Design: Jade Healy
Editing: Anne McCabe
Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Date: 23rd January (Australia)