2019 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: “It’s not really about Mister Rogers.” So remarks a character in Marielle Heller’s new film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” in response to the profile of the iconic children’s TV host that forms the basis of the narrative. For better or worse, that statement is true of the film itself, which eschews traditional biopic expectations for an endearing tribute to Mister Rogers’ legacy of kindness and empathy.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is inspired by a 1998 Esquire profile written by award-winning journalist Tom Junod. With his name changed to Lloyd Vogel for the film, it explores his journey to understanding Mister Rogers’ saint-like persona and its impact on his own cynical outlook. As he meets with Fred Rogers in various spheres of public and private life, their discussions begin to unearth feelings from Vogel’s own painful past.
Matthew Rhys makes a terrific audience surrogate in the lead role of Lloyd Vogel, conveying the curiosity and incredulity many feel when trying to understand Mister Rogers. Shouldering much of the emotional weight, his scenes are deeply touching, especially in depicting Vogel’s fractured relationship with his father (an equally brilliant Chris Cooper). Meanwhile, he’s comically amusing when he enters the world of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, dumbfounded by its genuine sense of pure goodness.
Directed with utmost grace, Marielle Heller fully translates the tenderhearted essence of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood through clever recreations of the miniaturist set concepts and the screenplay’s keen interest in exploring its protagonist’s deep hurt. In tandem with Tom Hanks‘ delicate, almost one-note performance as Mister Rogers, the film’s patient pacing invites you to sit back and relax. Hanks’ calming presence is utterly disarming, challenging you to simply believe in the magic of Mister Rogers.
Ultimately, that suspension of disbelief is key to appreciating “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Though the film explicitly asks audiences not to view Mister Rogers as a saint, it somewhat fails in humanizing him. A year after the exceptional documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” this drama offers nothing new to learn about Mister Rogers. As such, it’s certainly not the typical Oscar biopic you’d expect—though it will likely contend for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay—but it’s arguably better for it. By centering the story on a damaged individual whose life is changed by his encounter with Mr. Rogers, it beautifully reminds us of the power of compassion in making the world a better place.