If you’re an American reading this, have you ever heard of Tony Hart? Or maybe Peter Purvis? I’m guessing the answer is a resounding no. Well, that’s probably what British people would answer if you asked them who Fred Rogers was. It is also why A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood won’t make too great a ripple on these shores.
Tony Hart, by the way, was a legendary, kindly old artist who fronted a show for years with an animatronic lump of clay called Morph, while Peter Purvis is probably the most well known presenter of children’s TV educational series Blue Peter, a British institution for over 50 years. They are, in short, nice old men who children grew up watching and trusting in, along similar lines to Mr Rogers in the States, who with his show Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood for over three decades entertained more than one generation of children and became a beloved household name to families across the nation. Who else could have essayed such a role on the big screen than Tom Hanks?
The most notable aspect of Marielle Heller’s film, however, is that it is not a biography of Mr. Rogers. For that, you may want to check out the recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbour? from Morgan Neville which goes into detail about the man and his life, whereas A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is more about what Fred Rogers represented and the quiet power the man had to transform the lives of those he broadcasted to, and in the prism of this story, who he met. It’s a film about Mr. Rogers that isn’t *about* Mr. Rogers at all, and it’s the principal reason why the film ends up working so well.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is by degrees charming, heartbreaking, uplifting and, ultimately, a full rebuke of modern cynicism.
The focal point of Heller’s film, and the screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue & Noah Harpster, is journalist Lloyd Vogel, a freelancer for Esquire sent to profile Mr Rogers, whose journey is a transformative one through meeting and learning from this man.
Vogel is based loosely on Tom Junod, who wrote the Esquire article on which the screenplay was based called ‘Can You Say... Hero?’ in 1998, just a few years before Rogers’ death in 2003. A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood uses this as a jumping off point to establish Vogel as a cynical investigative journalist with a baby boy who is grappling with the reappearance of his estranged father Jerry (played with mercurial warmth by Chris Cooper), a man he has deep anger for after he abandoned his mother on her death bed. Lloyd is a reluctant profiler, believing Rogers to be a ‘fluff’ piece beneath him, but inevitably meeting Fred changes his life, reframes how he sees his relationship with his father, and awakens his inner child. “We are trying to give the world positive ways of dealing with their feelings.” Rogers claims, particularly through the experience of children, and it becomes clear Lloyd requires an overdue apotheosis with his father and youth.
In that sense, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood has a fairly simplistic narrative, buoyed by Matthew Rhys’ acerbic but moving performance as Lloyd, which is counteracted by Hanks’ quiet, personable and wise turn as Rogers. Though the film will be marketed around dramatising Mr Rogers, Hanks is essentially these support act here, but even Heller recognised that this is necessarily so:
Mr. Rogers can’t be the lead of a movie — he’s not someone with enough conflict. He doesn’t have the dynamic nature you need for a protagonist for a movie, but to have him be essentially the antagonist of a movie — who comes into someone’s life and flips it upside down through his philosophy and the way he lived his life — was so smart.
That’s the key to this. Rogers provides the catalyst for the change of Lloyd’s character as opposed to being a biographical journey for Rogers himself, and Hanks is happy to sit back and allow Rhys’ pain and dramatic conflict with Jerry to drive the heart of the film, and allow him to compile a profile on Rogers which understands the man as someone who is not easy to pin down. Rogers is virtuous but not saintly - at one point he admits teaching children the lessons his TV show does will make them better capitalists, more productive economically for society. “This piece will be for an issue about heroes. Do you consider yourself a hero?” Lloyd asks and it’s clear Rogers doesn’t. He is working hard like everyone else to be a good person and challenges Lloyd’s assertion that he presents a character on his TV show. Rogers is never disingenuous. He is who he presents himself to be and that clarity allows Lloyd to take on board what Rogers helps him to understand about being a father, and a son.
Where the film also stands out is in how Heller manages, through her lens, to string in some distinct visual surrealism. There is more than a hint of fable about A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, which begins with Fred Rogers—through the medium of his TV show—introducing his relationship with Lloyd, and the film proceeds to suggest Lloyd is *in* an episode of the show itself throughout; indeed one sequence actually sees Lloyd dream as much, talking to Rogers’ puppet characters. This allows Heller to bring a quirky visual touch that helped her stand out in previous film Can You Ever Forgive Me? and raise the picture up from being a single, traditional dramatic quasi-biography. It turns the piece into something slightly hyper-real and within the boundaries of Rogers’ show. It feels like an extension of his world, and as a result you completely but Lloyd’s Scrooge-esque character arc. This isn’t A Christmas Carol in any direct way but there is a festive flavour to the film, a central theme of change. It refuses to reject Rogers as a twee symbol of a bygone age and suggests his teachings are more needed than ever.
The hope is that such universal themes, and the presence of Tom Hanks at his *most* ‘Hanksy’, for want of a better term (hence the Oscar nomination), will allow A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood translate to non-American audiences. It deserves to. Marielle Heller gives a portrait of an American icon through the moving story of a broken child coming to heal. There certainly is beauty in that.