I know I’m not alone in my admiration and respect for Fred Rogers. Through his PBS television series, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, filmed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and global in its reach, he impressed upon countless children that everyone is uniquely special and that, while life is hard sometimes in terribly overwhelming ways, we can get by through honestly revealing our feelings. In recent years, it seems as though the world has become fascinated in his life and message, as he was recently featured in a career-spanning documentary in 2018’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. That fascination extends to A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, an incredibly charming and heartfelt look at the power of his message in transforming a person badly in need of it. In a film-landscape captivated by CGI bombast and comic-book morality, I have been, as of late, overwhelmed in spectacle by this year’s big-budget blockbusters, but this film hit me with a tidal wave of emotion that kept me emotionally invested throughout.
We follow Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a reporter tasked with briefly interviewing Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks); that assignment comes to be much more than anyone intended, when connection is made between the two. A biopic, this is not. Instead, we get something far better. Just comparing our protagonist’s name to the author of the 1998 Esquire piece that inspired the film shows that liberties were taken with the source material, with the film becoming a way of translating that piece’s message into a palatable story with audience resonance and distilling many of its disparate reflections into a narrative without being bound to tying them to exactly when and where they occurred. Don’t expect it to be a “true story”. Better yet, don’t expect anything at all. Instead, watch it, just as children would watch his show: expecting only whatever happens to unfold by way of the usual visit to his quaint home. Some of the best things about this film were left unspoiled by the marketing, and I will keep that intact here. Just know that telling any person’s story can afford unique perspectives, and Fred Rogers proves no different here. I was continually delighted by the directorial decisions chosen that transformed a story that could have easily fit a “made for TV” format and made it so much more. The reverence for all things Rogers permeates the entire production.
If the late Mister Rogers (who died in 2003) was undoubtedly a much-loved icon of television, then he is brought to life here by another much-loved icon of film, Tom Hanks. The incredible limits of Hanks‘ talent are only paralleled by the limits of his charm, and he brings his masterful touch to his portrayal here. All the well-known mannerisms we loved of Rogers are here, but due to the plot, Hanks takes us deeper and shows us the sincerity behind Rogers‘ philosophy of television. This isn’t told to us, but rather, it is laid out for us naturally; even when the film gives us peeks at the carpentry behind those memory-laden sets, we see that while it was all make-believe, there was a real message to be communicated: a message that we, indeed, feel ourselves.
Hanks stars opposite Rhys, and really, this film is his story. Much like the television show slowly and effectively changed the self-image of so many over the years, we follow a cynical man in need of a better perspective, a jaded journalist trying to build a family and career upon the rubbled ruins of his own childhood. Rhys inevitably won’t get the attention in a Mister Rogers movie, but he truly carries this film to a higher place with emotional honesty, a surrogate for an audience who may have been through the ringer too and could benefit from some self-examination and catharsis. While I wouldn’t call this “therapy, by way of cinema”, I wouldn’t not call it that either. The supporting cast all help bring this story alive, from those playing family to television associates.
What amazes me most about the film is that it highlights “relational ministry” in a way that no other film I can think of has done so well. The world today, largely secular, seems to be idolizing Rogers’ quiet compassion, active listening, and genuine emotional honesty. Even if the film shows it mildly, these attributes stem from Rogers‘ faith, even if that perspective appears to be inconvenient to secularists, critical of all things ancillary to Christianity. The seeming thirst for such things only amplifies the urgent need for Christians to be an example, to cut through the noise of modern life, and to show the individuals that they are special, unique, and worthy of love, just as God loves them. The film’s moments of prayer, personal attention, and compassionate listening give us an example to aspire to, not because they originated with Fred Rogers but because he himself was an effective minister. Grace is a word I believe was never uttered in the film, but that feature heavily in the article that inspired the film. It is may not have been said, but it was shown.
Content-wise, the film does have some language, but nothing excessive. Outside of an early bit of fighting, the film features no violence, and sexual imagery or suggestion is non-existent. The film will undoubtedly appeal to those fond of the old show, but the message is one for any who will experience it. After all, Rogers famously communicated that we were all kids once, and for those who are right now, this film could still speak to them, as well.
All-in-all, the film genuinely surprised me with the creative choices made to reinforce the themes of Rogers’ work, the humor than comes naturally from our cynical world colliding with a higher ideal, and the poignancy of how listening and careful attention can change the world, one life at a time. Never was I bored with the message or the way it was delivered, as throughout, the director, Marielle Heller, continually made the right choices. Whether it be within our own families or among the world around us, this film delivers affecting lessons on how to make a lasting impact with others through an engrossing story and genuine performances. It is a beautiful and entertaining compression of a worldview that will forever be needed in an imperfect world.
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