MPAA Rating: PG // Rating:
Release Year: 2019 // Director: Marielle Heller
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not the film we deserve. It’s the film we need.
If you were anticipating a biopic about Mr. Rogers, the origin story of a saint or superhero, you’ll be disappointed, for Marielle Heller has given us neither. Rather, Heller has gifted to the world one last episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood—this one for adults.
In fact, Mr. Rogers is not even the main character. It’s Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a writer for Esquire who is based on the real-life journalist Tom Junod. Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) introduces us to Lloyd, in a picture board on the set of an episode of the Neighborhood, as a friend struggling with some personal challenges. Soon, however, the story turns, and for the duration of the film we encounter Mr. Rogers from the perspective of Lloyd Vogel.
For several weeks, Vogel follows Mr. Rogers around Pittsburgh, New York City, and the set of Neighborhood. The more time he spends with him, the more difficult his 400-word profile assignment becomes. Mr. Rogers is the kindest man he’s ever met, he admits to his wife, but is he for real?
The answer is yes, he discovers. From a child and his parents who stop by the set in the middle of shooting to groups of people on the sidewalk clamoring for a handshake, Mr. Rogers has time for them all. “Mr. Rogers” isn’t a persona Fred Rogers puts on and takes off each day—Mr. Rogers is Fred Rogers.
But it’s more complicated than that, Vogel learns. Mr. Rogers is not a saint. In fact, he shuns the term. Being kind isn’t something that comes to him effortlessly, or any easier than it comes to anyone else. He struggles with parenting and anger. Though he doesn’t say anything, it’s evident that other peoples’ needs weigh on him. In other words, Mr. Rogers is just like us: he has to work at being kind.
It’s hard to write about anything related to Mr. Rogers in 2019 without acknowledging that it is, indeed, 2019. Much has already been written on the topic of “what would Mr. Rogers say?” about this or that. Which is a fine question, I suppose, but as Lloyd Vogel discovers, it’s not just that Mr. Rogers said things—it’s that he did things. To borrow a cliché (for Fred Rogers was an ordained minister) he practiced what he preached.
Midway through the film, Vogel finds himself sitting in a Chinese restaurant with Mr. Rogers. Vogel is interested in the interview at hand; Mr. Rogers is interested in the person across from him. “Will you do something with me?” Mr. Rogers asked Vogel. Then he explained: take sixty seconds to think about the people who have loved you into being. “I’ll watch the time,” he assures Vogel.
And he does. Sixty seconds tick away, one buy one, as the camera pans around the restaurant. Sixty seconds, each an opportunity for us to consider the people in our own lives who loved us into being. If there was any doubt as to what the filmmakers intended, when the camera finally comes to rest on Mr. Rogers, Hanks breaks the fourth wall so gently and masterfully, a silent invitation to give in to the moment at hand.
Mr. Rogers is almost as much of an enigma at the end as he is at the beginning. Frankly, by the time the credits roll we’ve learned little more about him than could be learned by watching a few episodes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood or reading the article that inspired the film.
But the story was never about Mr. Rogers, anyway, or even Lloyd Vogel or the real-life Tom Junod.
Rather, as with every episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, the story is really about us, the viewer.
There was no cosmic scoreboard with Fred Rogers, no using guilt to manipulate. “The whole idea…is to present as much love as you possibly could to a person who feels that he or she needs it,” he told CNN.
And so, after all, maybe this is the film we deserve, because it is the film we need.