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TIFF 2019 Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – “A complete delight to watch”

Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks) meets journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) in TriStar Pictures’ A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD.
Image courtesy of TIFF

From the very first frames of Marielle Heller‘s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood there is a sense of nostalgia and comfort.  If you grew up at a time when I did (no need to mention the year) then that grainy, tube television picture quality was what you knew, and as the camera pans over the miniatures that comprise Mr. Rogers’ neighbourhood and the music plays there’s a sense of warmth and familiarity that overtakes you.

While inspired by a true story, this is not your conventional biopic, or maybe it’s just not really about the subject you’re thinking.  The main person of interest here is not Fred Rogers himself, but instead the reporter who is working, quite fittingly, on a story about heroes for Esquire magazine.  Lloyd Vogel’s (Matthew Rhys) editor sends him to do a short 400 word piece on the children’s entertainer, played by Tom Hanks.  After a visit to the set of his television show in Pittsburg, Vogel decides there’s more to the story here.  Being an investigative journalist he wants to get to the centre of what makes Rogers tick, unaware of the fact that he’s about to become a centre of interest for Fred as well.

Vogel has a lot of pain in his life and, as it happens, Mr. Rogers is kind of an expert in that, helping children all over the world deal with difficult subject matters like death, illness, and wars.  He’s the face of feelings, which to a man like Lloyd, who is facing none of his own, is especially daunting.  Having just had a son with his wife Andrea (This is Us star Susan Kelechi Watson) and dealing with his estranged and ailing father (Chris Cooper) means that Lloyd’s suppressed emotions are at a breaking point.  Fred Rogers of course, sees a man in need.

While the entire cast is solid here all eyes were always going to be on Tom Hanks.  Especially with last year’s successful documentary, Won’t you be my Neighbor? bringing Fred Rogers back into people’s recent memory, an impersonation just wouldn’t do.  However Hanks is absolutely transformative.  If you’ve ever watched Mr. Rogers or seen that documentary then you can observe in his performance how he was meant to wear that cardigan.  From the soft, slow pacing of his speech to the eye contact, to the way he ties his shoe, every moment Hanks is on screen is a complete delight to watch.  Look for him to easily make his way into the Supporting Actor category at this year’s Academy Awards.

Director Marielle Heller, at the Toronto International Film Festival last year with Can You Ever Forgive Me? (which garnered Richard Grant the Supporting Actor nomination) has put immense detail into her work.  Recreating the feel of the show from the camerawork, recreating the miniatures and the puppets and even the music – it’s all there.  She has crafted a complete and utter joy from beginning to end.  Yet, there are moments of profundity here. Working on a script from Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Fred Rogers’ interactions with Lloyd are, at times laced with humour, but are also deeply meaningful.  Heller bravely includes a full minute of silent contemplation within one of their conversations that will have most audience members actively participating (and in my case also being moved to tears).

Then again, perhaps Heller’s film isn’t really a biopic at all – or at least not about a person.  It’s more about the origins and development of a message.  The message that Fred Rogers wanted everyone to be aware of – that ONE person is truly important.  The value of connection, of love, and of emotions that are okay to feel. In times like these is there anything more profound than this?  Mr. Rogers’ wife, Joanne, says in the film that she doesn’t like it when people label Fred a saint, as it means that being like him is no longer attainable.  We could all have a chance in our adulthood to grow, to be a little more like Mr. Rogers.  There’s no better reminder about the importance of our humanity.

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