Let’s get one thing straight: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not a biopic about Fred Rogers. The man who millions of children grew up knowing as Mister Rogers, their TV “neighbor,” was the subject of a strong (and very successful) biographical documentary in 2018. If you’re looking for the details of his life, start there.
What you’ll get from A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is much lighter on the backstory, though it’s got plenty of Rogers, too — played, in the year’s most perfect casting, by Tom Hanks. Instead of a retelling of the beloved children’s TV host’s life, this is a delightfully weird drama, framed and shot deliberately to feel like a grown-up episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. But it’s Matthew Rhys who stars as Lloyd Vogel, a version of real-life Esquire journalist Tom Junod, who was sent in 1998 to write a few hundred words about Rogers for a puff piece and wound up with a cover story and a changed life.
Those suspicious of sentimentality (and that’s me, too) may find this premise to be too maudlin for words. But watching A Beautiful Day, I became a believer — not just in the tale, but also in director Marielle Heller, whose 2018 film Can You Ever Forgive Me? was an unsentimental and yet compassionate tale of a prickly person changed (at least a little) by a friendship. This film invites us into Rogers’ philosophy that adults would be better people if they tried to remember what it was like to be children. It gently coaxes the audience to filter some very adult emotions through the familiar characters and songs and stories of Rogers’ world. The result is unexpected and unlike any film of its kind, and a testimony to Rogers’ enduring influence, too.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is the tale of an angry man who can’t figure Fred Rogers out
The plot of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is simple, and based around Junod’s experience. Vogel (Rhys) resists his editor’s assignment, but she insists, and so he goes from New York to Pittsburgh, where Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is shot at WQED, the local PBS member station.
Vogel arrives on set looking a little ragged, which he tells everyone is the result of a softball injury but is actually because, a week earlier, he threw a punch at his estranged father (Chris Cooper) at his sister’s wedding, and his father punched back. Vogel, it’s clear, is an angry man. His editor gave him the assignment to profile Rogers for the magazine’s upcoming issue on “heroes” because she thinks he needs a way to rehabilitate his reputation; Rogers, it turns out, was the only one of the subjects who agreed to talk to Vogel, whose interviewees tend to find that their pleasant conversations with him become eviscerations on the page.
And Vogel is highly suspicious of Rogers, who both seems inscrutable and even evasive, making Vogel extremely uncomfortable. Rogers asks him about his injury; Vogel demurs. Rogers, in his gentle way, pries at Vogel’s obvious wounds; Vogel responds by stomping off. The assignment drags on him, even as he finds himself drawn to Rogers. And as their relationship grows, he finds himself further confounded by this astonishing man he’d written off as a corny children’s entertainer.
You kind of know where this story will go (if for no other reason than because you can just go read Junod’s profile of Rogers to find out a version of it). It’s a tale of forgiveness and grace. But what’s special about A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is how it’s told, and why.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood looks and feels like an episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood looks a little weird on screen: Flatly lit, sometimes weirdly framed, with edits and close-ups that seem lifted more from late-’90s public access TV dramas than cinema. Of course, that’s all on purpose. Heller wants us not just to remember what it was like to watch Mister Rogers on TV, but to also feel as if we’re watching it again.
Opening with the show’s familiar song, the genial Hanks-as-Rogers opens the front door to his “house” set, singing his signature “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” song — the show’s de facto theme — and performing his ritual. He removes his jacket and hangs it in the closet, zips up his cardigan, and changes into his sneakers, playfully throwing one shoe into his other hand with a conspiratorial grin at the audience.
Then he starts to tell us about his friends, using a big board with doors cut into it, behind which are pictures of people (and puppets) like King Friday the Thirteenth and Lady Fairchilde, from the Land of Make-Believe. Behind one door, quite unexpectedly, is Vogel, with a busted nose. Mister Rogers is going to tell us a story about his friend Lloyd.
It becomes apparent that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is framed as a feature-length episode of Rogers’ show, but for and about adults, in which very adult feelings — like anger at your estranged father, or fear of parenting your own infant son — are meant to be confronted. Gently, Rogers reminds Vogel (and us) that we all get angry, but what we do with that anger is what matters, and that forgiveness is the hardest thing of all to do.
Since the drama all feels, visually, like it’s drawn from a vintage TV show with a modest budget, the story fits the frame, and the movie even uses versions of Rogers’ signature small-scale neighborhood models to establish locations that lie far outside Rogers’ TV show (like Vogel’s home in New York City). Heller’s direction carefully sustains this illusion, which breaks down our defenses; we barely notice our slip from adult movie-watching mode to childhood PBS-watching mode.
In fact, the movie acts more like a full-length critical analysis of why Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was so powerful, and had such an effect on the lives of millions of children. It’s not that he was the first person to ever break the fourth wall in children’s entertainment. It’s just that when Rogers did it, he meant it: Everyone watching really was part of his world. When he met viewers in real life, whether children or adults, they were already welcome (even when the time he spent talking to visitors might have grown wearying for his crew).
And the idea of the film, as it was in Rogers’ show, is to both create a world of imagination and keep the fourth wall nonexistent. Rogers often addressed the child viewers of his show directly, asking them questions and reminding them that they’re special and loved. The movie, in a way, does the same. (At one point, it happens explicitly.)
The result is something quite unlike a conventional movie about a beloved figure. By the end, Rogers remains both beloved and somewhat mysterious; he is less of a famous person whom we can come to understand more by watching a movie about him, and more like a conduit for some kind of mystical grace. For those of us suspicious of that much goodness, skeptical that such a simple message as Rogers’ can really have an effect, the character of Vogel gives us a way in. And A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood sneaks around the barriers we throw up in adulthood, finding the kid inside of us who just wants to know we are loved.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. It opens in theaters on November 22.