Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood” (2019) is a surprisingly powerful story about love, trauma, forgiveness and family cleverly mixed in with a biopic of Mr. Fred Rogers; the beloved host of a children’s television show that successfully helped American children navigate through the messiness and confusion of growing up. While films like “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018) and “Rocketman” (2019) give us a direct adaption of a rock-star’s Wikipedia page, this movie aims for something different: it shows us why we should give a damn about who Fred Rogers is, and what sort of lessons we can learn from him, by focusing on a series of events that included him and yet never actually happened. The script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster has the rare honour of appearing on the 2013 blacklist for best unproduced screenplays. I say rare because most scripts that make this yearly list, regardless of their quality, have yet to be produced into feature films. Some notable examples of great films that appeared on a yearly blacklist are “Spotlight” (2015), “Argo” (2012), “The Social Network” (2010), “There Will Be Blood” (2007), and “Zodiac” (2007). Heller’s latest feature may not have received the widespread critical attention that these movies were awarded, but it nonetheless reflects that the few movies that do make it out of the blacklist and on to the screen are well worth seeing.
The first thing to understand about “A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood” is that, despite Tom Hanks’ near-perfect performance as Fred Rogers, the movie’s true protagonist is instead cynical journalist Lloyd Vogel: a young husband and father dealing with the mess of an unaddressed trauma and anger from his past. Lloyd’s life and his story are a fictional spin on Tom Junod’s career-defining Esquire article covering Fred Rogers published in 1998, but the writers have taken this seemingly ordinary set of circumstances and created a meaningful story around it. Embellishment is a natural part of any biographical picture, but “A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood” ends up trafficking in more fiction than fact. The majority of what goes on never actually happened, right down to the conversations between the few very real people who inhabit the screen, and yet every artificial act and interaction feels entirely authentic. The freedom granted by this choice to fictionalise, then, helps the movie transcend the usual limits of biographies. Lloyd and his troubles did not exist, and in some sense this makes the movie misleading, but his affliction is all too common. Pitting him alongside Mr. Rogers does a great deal to emphasise the transformative affect that the icon has had on the many children who tuned in to his show. Non-yanks like me share Lloyd’s scepticism early on, but like him we grow to understand why he is so universally adored and, more importantly, what we can still learn from him. This aspect of the film’s narrative speaks to an often ignored truism that art doesn’t need to coldly reflect the real world. It just needs to show us a little something about who we are and how we should live.
Lloyd writes cynical exposés on celebrities, always looking to expose some hidden sin that, at least for him, speaks to an uglier truth about people in general. This mean-spirited career in truth-telling didn’t spring from nowhere; Lloyd and his sister were abandoned by their father when they were children right around the same time that their mother died of cancer. He seems to have channelled all the anger, pain, and trauma from his less-than-ideal childhood into a pessimistic conviction that the goodness exhibited by those like Fred Rogers is nothing more than a lie. There are people like Lloyd everywhere in the modern world, and I suppose that’s why he’s so easy to relate to. We either know someone like him or, worse yet, are ourselves a little bit like him. It’s a testament to Matthew Rhys that he so convincingly, and often brilliantly, embodies a man crumbling under the weight of his own anger and resentment. You can’t help but feel for him. The picture does a good job of showing that Lloyd’s suspicion of Rogers is wrapped up entirely with his trauma, and does an even greater job of showing that, although Lloyd has successfully utilised it, his success is eating away at his capacity to connect with his wife and new born son. Lloyd may feel that rejecting his father’s olive branches is the ‘right’ thing to do, but it certainly isn’t making his life any better. And it doesn’t take a genius to recognise that men who hold on to their bitterness and trauma are less inclined to be loving fathers; passing that trauma down from generation to generation. Although, as an audience, we sympathise with Lloyd, we nonetheless become frustrated when he continually refuses to forgive his father, love his family, and break the cycle of pain. And it is this frustration that hooks us in.
The casting here is absolutely fantastic. Matthew Rhys is showcasing his superb acting chops as Lloyd, often commanding absolute attention and sympathy through his mannerisms and facial expressions alone. Hanks manages to perfectly embody the genuine kindness of Mr. Rogers in his mission to help Lloyd overcome his pain, and the filmmakers chose wisely in limiting his screen time to only those moments that most impact the story. Chris Cooper’s heart-breaking performance as Lloyd’s absent farther and Susan Kelechi Watson’s endearing portrayal of Andrea, Lloyd’s wife, are very much the twin anchors of this story. It is through them that we get a real sense of the how horribly Lloyd’s self-destructive behaviour is affecting those who care about and depend upon him most. Meanwhile, Maryann Plunkett’s performance as Joan Rogers and Enrico Colantoni’s depiction of Bill Isler, Mr. Rogers’ manager, give a refreshingly honest and nuanced account of his otherwise super-human status. Fans of the television icon have a bad habit of painting Rogers as a saint incapable of our merely mortal weaknesses, but that simply isn’t the case. What is so extraordinary about Rogers is that he has all the same flaws as us: he gets angry, has arguments, and is sometimes selfish. And yet he has taken the time and attention to craft a good-natured and affectionate attitude that betters the world around him. By dissecting this myth and showing us what’s behind it, the fiction in this film ironically ends up painting a more realistic picture of Rogers than the one painted by the narrative that circulates in our world. I’d say that this is surprising, or a rarity, but that would be a horrible fib. After all, the movies have a habit of making truth out of legends.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood” has a comforting slowness to it. The camera tends to linger in places and let you soak in the picture, which in turn encourages you to appreciate the careful craftsmanship in the art direction and set design. Each location that the characters inhabit throughout the picture feels authentic and deliberate in much the same way that the locations in any good stage play does – and this isn’t at all a bad thing. The costuming, too, is appropriate to the setting (the late 90’s) and the abject normalness of the lives of those we are following. In fact, none of the visual components of this film feel particularly impressive; and they often take a back seat to the dialogue, writing, and music which are, without question, the film’s most powerful parts. Having said that, the picture has a clever little way of transitioning from each stage-like location by presenting every flight, car drive, and change of scenery as if it were happening in the model neighbourhood that Mr. Rogers inhabits in his children’s show. These sequences are totally endearing and add a much-needed light-heartedness to the otherwise grim exploration of suffering. They also cut out the wastefulness of spending too much time showing our characters travelling, sort of like how the Indiana Jones films use the line on the map to keep the film sharp and focused. These creative tricks are often the things that give films their signature energy, especially when they pop up in new stories trying to break from the emptiness and monotony that plagues modern cinema.
The music carrying this picture swings from soft jazz piano numbers to uplifting guitar plucks with an energy I haven’t felt from a movie in a long, long time. And it works beautifully. The rhythm sweeps you from scene to scene and, in tandem with the model sets, gives the movie an intimate, warm feeling that sticks around. Funnily enough, the composer is Marielle’s brother Nate Heller, who does the music for all her pictures. And, after seeing his work here, its pretty clear why she keeps him around. It’s what we find between these musical numbers, however, that truly gives the movie its weight. The outstanding dialogue weaved throughout the script by Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster is often painful to watch as it erupts from the stellar performances. Likewise, every choice these characters make and every means by which they express their feelings feels entirely rich, and you can sense the depth of experience that seeps into their decisions. Culminating from all these building blocks lies a challenging film that decidedly confronts the bitter trauma of an otherwise normal looking, successful man. And it does so with a raw, honest presentation and a careful touch that is nothing short of refreshing. No gross sentimentality or idolatry, just a very human story about ordinary people learning to let go of anger and to embrace forgiveness. And that’s a powerful thing.