A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood  Review: A compassionate tale about acceptance
Movie Review: There’s a shot in Marielle Heller’s ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood‘ where Tom Hanks who plays Fred Rogers, breaks the fourth wall and stares at the screen for a good 20 seconds. The shot is designed in a way that makes you feel that a person is staring into your soul trying to help you deal with yourself. It’s one of the many moments in the film that makes you feel feelings in the exact way you should. Which is exactly why the film doesn’t seem unnecessary in spite of having made us relive Mr. Rogers’ life post the beautiful 2018 documentary ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbour?‘ On the contrary, it works as a perfect companion piece that compassionately works it’s charm like a warm, fuzzy therapy session.
Inspired by the 1998 Esquire article ‘Can you Say…Hero?’ by Tom Junod, the film surprisingly follows the article writer (named Lloyd Vogel here and played by Matthew Rhys) instead of the larger than life character that Mr. Rogers is. We follow his quest to write a small piece – that eventually turns into a heartfelt 10,000 words essay on Fred Rogers. For those of you who don’t know anything about Mr. Rogers, I’ll clue you in (However, I’d suggest you go see ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbour?’ instead). He was a famous American television host of a kids show called ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood‘ that sprawled from 1968 to 2001. This was not just any other kids’ show. While it had puppets, over-the-top childish sensitization – it was well-know because it dealt with heavy subjects like death, war, divorce and above all sadness and anger.
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In many ways, Mr. Rogers was an American Hero. Coming back to the film – for Lloyd Vogel, he was just a mere assignment. After he was told to write a piece on Mr. Rogers, Lloyd – because of his inbuilt cynicism wanted to dig into the other side of Mr. Rogers that could become a sensational story piece. Marielle Heller chooses to show Lloyd as a person caged with unchecked anger due to his father abandoning him. While she could have simply chosen to show Mr. Roger as a larger than life character that he is, she chooses him as a plot device in Lloyd’s journey to self-acceptance and understanding. This doesn’t mean she exploits Mr. Roger as a therapeutic exercise for Lloyd. She etches him as a complex character himself. One who is an imperfect human being like everyone else. He’s just a person carrying the deep burden of thousands of people – their joys, their anger, and their sadness.
At one point Lloyd asks him if this burden becomes too heavy? This is an interesting place to delve into what Heller does here. She makes sure that we – as an audience picture ourselves in whatever form we prefer. She also makes sure that we don’t obligate ourselves into believing that one of our version is better than any other. Her choices of using the look and feel of an old TV show and the set design of Mr. Roger’s Neighbourhood to channel that happenings in the film are really something. It immerses us in both the characters simultaneously. The film also could have become sentimental at any point but it chooses not to. It simply follows the warm, cozy environment of Mr. Roger’s show – while dealing with the feelings of Lloyd’s inner child who simply can’t understand his anger for his father.
Tom Hanks is a perfect fit to play Fred Rogers. He has a comforting presence that lets you dive slowly into your own self-reflectiveness. His wonderful ideas about praying, letting your guard down and accepting yourself along with the ones around you are powerfully emitted with a performance that was tailor-made for him. The only downside of this nice little film is Matthew Rhys’ Lloyd. While he feels comfortable enough to play him, there aren’t enough nuances he brings to his role. A major chunk of the film is dedicated to his gradual metamorphosis into someone who understands his feelings and why he is a certain way. Rhys doesn’t necessarily exhibit that subtleness in his character with enough convection.
In one of the many questions that Lloyd asks Mr. Rogers, he investigates his 3-year long absence from Television. The humble Fred Rogers accepts that he faced the wrath of seeing a child grow into a teenager. As a parent, there are new issues and challenges that are needed to be dealt with. Even though I have had problems with Marielle Heller’s previous two films – Plainly for the reasons of her final act choices and shaky morality, I’d say ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’ features a more mature filmmaker at work. In a way, it’s her way of showing the next phase of a teenager’s life. One where they become fathers and mothers and the cycle of feeling gets mismatched. Apart from a few hiccups here and there, this is a wonderful, fuzzy film that will warm your heart.