By Poulomi Das Jan. 17, 2020
In A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, Marielle Heller isn’t fixated with viewing Fred Rogers as a mystery that needs to be solved. Instead, Heller, complemented by a pitch perfect Tom Hanks performance, is invested in mapping the extent of his influence through a tender tale of redemption.
After training her gaze on teenage sexuality in The Diary of a Teenage Girl and middle-aged abrasiveness in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Marielle Heller comes full circle by examining old-age benevolence in A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood.
By now, the uniquely perceptive Heller has displayed a knack for revealing the ragged edges of the human condition without dispensing even a sliver of judgement. Her prowess at working around the audience’s skepticism and catching them by surprise in the way she locates newer themes in already familiar narratives has been the highlight in each of these three features. It’s a hell of a strike rate in itself. But this steadfast commitment to the material especially elevates A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, a gentle drama about the burdens that men quietly carry around in their hearts. In the hands of any other director, the film that charts predictable arcs of forgiveness, friendship, and parental abandonment might have unleashed your average cynicism. But Heller, a criminally overlooked director, manages to make A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood that kind of a rare film that makes you move without making you conscious of its effectiveness at all.
Loosely based on “Can You Say… Hero?,” Tom Junod’s 1998 profile of Fred Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood chronicles the relationship that develops between a persnickety journalist and the beloved children’s TV host, adjudged the nicest man in America. The best thing about the film is that Heller (working on an epigrammatic script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster) strays away from the conventional template of a biopic.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is a gentle drama about the burdens that men quietly carry around in their hearts.
Unlike last year’s Mister Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbour? that offered an irresistible, illuminating peek into the TV host’s personal life, Heller isn’t fixated with viewing Fred Rogers as a mystery that needs to be solved. Instead, Heller, complemented by a pitch perfect Tom Hanks performance (the casting doesn’t get more poetic) welcomes the curiosity about the man behind Mister Rogers. It helps that Hanks plays Rogers without wanting to decipher him as if ensuring that the inner complexities of Rogers, whose whole life is otherwise fair game as public memorabilia, is afforded a semblance of privacy. The sincerity is oddly touching. What Heller is interested in mapping is the extent of his influence, especially on adults, through a tender tale of redemption. The result is a mesmerising, emotionally intelligent portrait of the blurring lines between masculinity and art.
A Beautiful Day in a Neighbourhood opens with a daring opening sequence which is a thing of marvel – exactly how Mister Rogers began his show, down to the same rectangular format. In a carefully recreated set, Hanks performs the transformation of becoming Fred Rogers in real time as he opens the door to his world of neighbourhood make-believe and lets us in. He takes off a blue blazer and shoes without breaking eye contact with the camera and while singing the show’s hummable title track before donning the signature red zip-up cardigan and sneakers.
I was almost breathless at the sincerity with which Hanks performs a mundane ritual of playing with his shoes for a moment after taking them off. Sony Pictures
I was almost breathless at the sincerity with which Hanks performs a mundane ritual of playing with his shoes for a moment after taking them off.
It is the execution of this fluid sequence that encapsulates the film’s quiet achievement: Hanks doesn’t mimic Roger as much as he imbibes his spirit. The intent here isn’t whether you can recognise Mister Rogers in Hanks, but whether you can relate to him. It’s the little details that ease you into the actor’s rendition of Rogers – the stillness of his pauses, the soothing cadence, how he instinctively seems to measure the weight of every word he utters, and his ability to hypnotise. I was almost breathless at the embarrassing commitment with which Hanks performs a mundane ritual of playing with his shoes for a moment after taking them off. You don’t need to look at the face to realise that it has Mister Rogers written all over it.
Heller cleverly uses the setup of the show to serve as a segue to the the story of the film’s central protagonist: the cynical but talented Lloyd Vogel (Mathhew Rhys whose face somehow seems to internalise devastation), a new parent enduring the baggage of being abandoned by his father (Chris Cooper) as a child. Years later, when they reunite at a family wedding, a fistfight ensues. It’s at this same time that Lloyd, an investigative reporter with a dubious reputation, meets Fred Rogers. He has been assigned a profile on the TV host which he promptly dismisses as a “puff piece”. Yet during the course of their meeting, the tables are turned: Mister Rogers does the asking and Lloyd the revealing. It’s not entirely difficult to guess the pleasant repercussions of this chance encounter or that Mister Rogers ultimately comes to upends Llyod’s life. As is expected, a familial reconciliation is in the offing, as is a confrontation of repressed trauma.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood goes in unbelievable directions that sparkle with inventiveness.
It’s almost as if Heller anticipates the response to the straightforward narrative. Perhaps, that is why, even when the story unfolds exactly as you think it will, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood goes in unbelievable directions that sparkle with inventiveness. For one, Heller adeptly plays with the form of the film. It operates in a surreal universe that merges fantasy and reality in a way that often seems like a hallucination, in the same way that Llyod remarks that Mister Rogers doesn’t feel like a real person. There’s a dream sequence that is fable-like in its composition. It’s stacked with smart flourishes, whether it is narrative devices that seamlessly substitute location shots with miniature cityscapes or in the juxtaposition of Roger’s unvarnished compassion for children with the enduring relevance of his beliefs in the real world.
Yet, I’d be inclined to argue that the real charms of the film lie in its subtext. If in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Heller interrogated the boundaries of authenticity in art, here she prods the cost of an artist sustaining his humanity. It’s an intimate recreation of the very definition of artistry – a commitment to a state of grace. This ambitious vision reaches its crescendo in the melancholic closing sequence, where Mister Rogers familiar to a world that might not come close to really seeing him, plays the piano signalling the end of a day of a shoot. There’s a moment where he jams down hard on the keys, revealing a deep hurt simmering inside him. That Heller only hints at it, feels like an act of almost maternal preservation; either way it’s a moment that makes a masterpiece out of a cliffhanger.
After a point, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood starts resembling Mister Rogers, capturing precisely what it must have felt to live through a time when a man on the TV moved you enough to care, to believe in something, and want to be his neighbour. I can’t stop thinking about a captivating moment where Fred Rogers says, “I want to look through the camera into the eyes of a single child” to Llyod on the phone exactly when he looks out of his window to see his father waiting downstairs for his forgiveness. It’s in this scene that you realise the simplicity of Heller’s deception: She intended for us to look with Mister Rogers and not at him. The point of view was always going to be that of a child. More importantly, the film’s investment was always in translating the empathy of Mister Rogers for a world that could do with some of it. It’s never not a beautiful day in the neighborhood for that.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.