Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not a straight biopic about Mr Rogers, (which would probably not be terribly interesting and was basically done in the delightful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor). Instead it is the story of another man, Lloyd Vogel’s (Matthew Rhys) road to understanding himself better as a husband, son and father. A cynical reporter, he is tasked with investigating the legendary children’s TV entertainer, but is confronted by his wife, his boss, and Rogers himself with the painful awareness of his own failings.
Fred Rogers is not really known to Aussies, but to Americans he had as essential a childhood TV program as Play School was to most of us. A man of rare wisdom and kindness, he was unique on television for confronting the things that make children anxious. Instead of avoiding them, he would conduct quiet roleplays with his cast of human and puppet characters that would show children how they can talk about hard topics like war, divorce and death.
As a character, Rogers is larger than life, infinitely patient and deeply insightful. Of course, it is no surprise that America’s most beloved actor of nice guys should play him, though Tom Hanks had formerly announced a desire to stay away from playing any more real people. A personal relationship with the director and an obvious interest in the material persuaded him. The movie, however, does not wish Rogers’ kindness to stay a thing of legend, as Rogers’ wife Joanne makes clear to Vogel when she says she doesn’t like the word ‘saint’, for it makes Rogers’ equanimity unattainable to the rest of us.
But we, with Vogel, are taken inside the entertainer’s methods. Sceptical Vogel, fuelled by his own anger at pain caused him in the past by his father (Chris Cooper), is insistent that Rogers can’t be as good he seems, and basically sets out to scuttle him in an extended investigative piece that would go well outside his brief – to write a puff piece on a ‘hero’.
Over vegetarian breakfast in a restaurant one morning, Vogel is invited to join Rogers in a minute of silence, during which he should reflect on those who have loved him into being who he is. It is treated with actual cinema silence, and it is a quietly moving piece of surrealism. First Vogel joins him, then other patrons (including some played by Rogers’ real family), and then, as the camera serenely floats about the space, something surprising happens. Hanks looks directly at us, extending the invitation to the audience. It’s a clarion call to choose contemplative compassion over anger, sincerity over cynicism.
It could be sappy. But this is not your average based-on-real-life movie. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood avoids cheese by being formally experimental. In particular it makes charming use of ‘Mr Rogers’ style elements like miniatures to establish place and travel. At my screening, each time a little model plane dropped abruptly onto a tiny runway there was a chuckle from the audience. And they’re not the only laughs in the movie either, many of which are sweetly cathartic. The humour is there to tell us all that we’re going to be alright.
It would be a shame if Australians didn’t see this uplifting piece of magic realism on account of unfamiliarity with Fred Rogers. Admittedly, it probably has an extra level of resonance with those who loved him as a child. But A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is relevant to anyone who may have lost hope that our leaders possess nothing but self-interest. It is for those who need to be reassured that kindness cannot be beaten.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is in cinemas Thursday.