REVIEW: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood [2019]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: PG | Runtime: 108 minutes | Release Date: November 22nd, 2019 (USA)
Studio: TriStar Pictures / Sony Pictures Releasing
Director(s): Marielle Heller
Writer(s): Micah Fitzerman-Blue & Noah Harpster

“Anything mentionable is manageable”

Anyone who grew up watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” has a friend. Their parents might have smiled at what they inaccurately presumed was a performance, but the children smiled because the connection felt was real. Here was a man who looked them in the eyes and spoke truths with as much compassion and vulnerability as they possessed while watching. He was someone who listened even though the act itself was impossible through television. Fred Rogers cared—sometimes when it seemed like no one else did—because he understood what it was like to be scared, joyful, and untouched by the harshness of a world yet to consume you with its daunting immensity. The power his gaze held changed the lives of millions and he never took it for granted.

Director Marielle Heller doesn’t either. When the Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) in her film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood asks Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) to sit quietly for a full minute and think about the people who loved him into existence, she doesn’t let the opportunity to portray his magical hold on humanity at-large slip away. So as they commence the act, everyone else in the restaurant (including the real Joanne Rogers, Fred’s widow) follows suit. Silverware clangs onto plates before whispers evaporate into silence as the camera pushes in on Hanks’ face to catch a smooth change in his sight line from Rhys to us. Suddenly we’ve become participants in this therapeutic act via our own thoughts. His “Thank you” becomes each of ours to hold.

This ability to turn the film into an experience identical to an episode of Rogers’ television show is what guarantees it will transcend any biopic conventions that it’s ultimately forced to possess. Screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster therefore team with Heller to spin a heartfelt yarn around Esquire magazine journalist Tom Junod‘s profile from November 1998 entitled “Can You Say … Hero?” so that they can engage their audience with one more lesson. This time we’re asked to comprehend his message as grown-ups, though. Fred may begin the film by putting on his sweater to introduce his troubled friend Lloyd to children, but he’s speaking about the deep-seated anger and pain that can fester inside long enough to cement itself as a piece of our adult identity.

Heller helps him do so by building an elaborate set of exteriors in miniature that mimic Roger’s own Neighborhood of Make-Believe (complete with a fuzzy full-frame aesthetic that should have you reaching for the remote to adjust tracking). This is how we travel from Pittsburgh to New York City in order to catch a glimpse of a defining moment in Lloyd’s life. He’s packing baby accessories with his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) so they can take their infant son Gavin to his sister’s latest wedding. A new father struggling to juggle what that means with a career that takes him on the road too often, he can’t quite see the parallels to his own father’s (Chris Cooper‘s Jerry) abandonment after Mom ( Jessica Hecht) got sick.

The resentment he feels for his dad—which leads to a physical altercation and wound explained away as a softball injury—has manifested into a fear of screwing up. That in turn causes him to choose absence and hope his self-loathing won’t spill over into his home life. Pair this with Jerry’s decision to presently make an effort to be in his life and Lloyd becomes the living embodiment of avoidance. He writes scathing articles that pick apart well-known figures as a self-proclaimed judge of hypocrisy and right and wrong, but refuses to look in the mirror. It’s no surprise then that he enters his Rogers interview with the intent of exposing this larger than life figure as a flawed and potentially resentful man. Fred exposes him instead.

Doing so relies upon acceptance, though. Rogers does what he always does: listen, measure, and respond. Rather than see an adult who can’t figure out how to connect with a child, Lloyd presents him a son who can’t reconcile the chasm between a parent and him. The usual strategy of reminding adults that they were once children too is thus flipped so he can remind Lloyd that Jerry was a victim to the same insecurities he suffers from now. This isn’t an excuse. Never does what Rogers say infer that the elder Vogel deserves forgiveness. On the contrary, it’s Lloyd who deserves to forgive himself. Maybe he’ll supply some of that to his father also, but only after accepting the lie he’s been telling himself for too long.

And it doesn’t take much to reach him either. Rogers’ wholesomeness is all that’s necessary for Lloyd to question his preconceptions and cynicism. His patience and intelligence are all that’s needed to give Lloyd pause to see through the emotional barriers he’s set-up as defense mechanisms against reliving the anguish of youth. It sparks additional anger since Lloyd bearing witness to his own hypocrisy forces him to fight harder against his truth. Some push back is in response to his personal interactions with Fred and some is a result of the episodes themselves. So much of what triggers Lloyd occurs while he watches as a third party to prove how Rogers’ brilliance was his power to speak to each of us individually despite our being in a group.

Hanks is magnificent in the role. He looks nothing like Fred Rogers, but the cadence, mannerisms, and empathy is pitch perfect. We watch as he meets strangers of all ages and treats them with a respect that no longer exists in this world. It doesn’t matter that he has a schedule to keep (as Enrico Colantoni‘s Bill Isler and Carmen Cusack‘s Margy constantly steer him towards) because these people are the point. That man they saw on the television isn’t a fabrication of what they hope to see. He’s exactly what they’ll see on the street too. That genuine authenticity is unmatched as it welcomes you in with open arms. It shows us that there’s another way to be if only we allow ourselves to confront our fears.

So just as he’s talking to Lloyd (Rhys is inspired casting after a long run as the stoic yet emotionally vulnerable patriarch of “The Americans”), Rogers also interacts with you. He’s providing the words we need to face our own pasts and presents with open minds while Heller supplies the pulpit with which to deliver his thoughtfully universal and brief sermons. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood‘s feel-good nature assures us of what Lloyd will do with the “mad he has inside,” but what you do with yours is still unknown. Lloyd merely serves as an example of forgiveness in oneself through emotional growth for us to aspire towards. Rogers was never a “fixer,” but a “shower” instead. He heroically normalized repressed truths as a means for healing.


photography:
[1] Tom Hanks stars as Mister Rogers in TriStar Pictures’ A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. Photo by: Lacey Terrell ©2019 CTMG, Inc. All rights reserved. Photo by: Lacey Terrell **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED. photo by: Lacey Terrell
[2] Matthew Rhys stars in TriStar Pictures’ A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. ©2019 CTMG, Inc. All rights reserved. Photo by: Lacey Terrell **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED. photo by: Lacey Terrell
[3] Matthew Rhys stars in TriStar Pictures’ A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. ©2019 CTMG, Inc. All rights reserved. Photo by: Lacey Terrell **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED. photo by: Lacey Terrell

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