If you’re a non-North American viewer of A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, and aren’t aware of the television history of Fred Rogers, I think some context would be useful. Mr Rogers was a children’s TV presenter, musician, writer and puppeteer who led the programme Mister Roger’s Neighborhood from 1968 to 2001. Having a Canadian in my life, and watched the perceptive documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? last year, read my review here, I have an acute awareness of his impact on so many people and for the better.
His shows were aimed at children but also raised real, adult questions like how to deal with things like sadness, anger and the such. This was something no-one else was really doing at the time and because of this compassionate, teaching approach, he has remained in the minds of many into their adulthood, in a positive sense.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood uses Mr Rogers (exquisitely portrayed by Tom Hanks) as the centre of a self-healing process for its lead character and story and it’s inspired by the real-life 1998 Esquire article by journalist Tom Junod. At this point, Junod was known for his deeper investigative work and, as we see in the film, a deep cynicism for why Mr Rogers was doing what he was doing for kids, questioning his methods and possibly even his intentions. In this film, that role has been renamed Lloyd Vogel and he’s portrayed by Matthew Rhys, who gives us an angry, distrustful figure wondering why he’s interviewing someone that wouldn’t usually be on his radar. Vogel is also given a fictional estranged Father, the initially distant Jerry (an always-impressive Chris Cooper), who arrives back into Lloyd’s life, just as he and his partner Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) have a new baby and Lloyd is not happy to see him. It’s clear that he’s holding in a number of deeper, personal issues.
Upon Lloyd’s first interview/assignment with Tom Hanks‘ Rogers, the latter chats and introduces his to his show puppets, and then asks Lloyd to remember a toy he had a kid, and what it meant to him. Initially both taken aback and un-eager to answer the question, the sheer innocence and empathy of Hanks’ Mr Rogers wins him over, opens him up and gets him talking about things he’d completely forgotten about. It’s an magical, entrancing performance from Hanks but in a positive way, with real heart and insight, and gives us an early indication of the changes that could be forthcoming.
While much of the film is about Lloyd’s journey is about finding himself again, understanding his role in his young family and learning to let go of the heavy, suppressed anger inside of him, it’s also a wonderful mediation on the depths of the beliefs that Fred Roger’s endeavoured to share to the kids that watched his show. So, this is an adult story (with hefty themes that literally pushed me to tears at various moments) but the compassion and deep empathy that resonates throughout was more than welcomed in, alongside Hanks and Rhys giving exceptional performances from start to finish.
Tonally, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is unusual and occasionally unconventional – from animation, hand-made miniature cityscapes and a Michel Gondry-esque dream-sequence – it oddly doesn’t take away too much from the wider story, that of a personal hunt for closure and relationship redemption. It’d be interesting to know whether those unfamiliar with Mr Rogers, or at least aware of his influence, could connect in the same way. While it might play on nostalgia in the assumed instance, there’s a more profound story here, one that encompasses the very nature of Mr Rogers aforementioned empathy, and his desire to help people (of all ages) to deal with their issues, which is compelling.
This is a story within a story, whilst the centre is very much Fred Rogers and his very existence and nature, it’s also the tale of Lloyd, his growth and acceptance of things in life that don’t always go the way we want them to by saying: Life is tough, problems occur, and nothing is ever perfect but being grateful for what you do have is an important lesson to learn, and that kind of reality could be more important than ever to accept right now.
Special Features include:
- Over 15 Minutes of Additional Scenes
- Blooper Reel
- Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers
- The People Who Make a Neighbourhood: The Making Of
- Dreaming Big, Building Small: The Puppets & Miniatures
- Daniel Tiger Explains: Practice Makes Perfect
- Filmmaker Commentary