Did we really need another Mr. Rogers movie after last year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the excellent documentary about the icon’s life and death? Of course we did, you maniac. Have you looked around lately? We need a new Mr. Rogers movie every month. This year’s cinematic blessing is A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a biographical drama about a journalist whose life changed after he profiled Fred Rogers. The movie is directed by Marielle Heller, the woman behind underseen gems like Can You Ever Forgive Me? and The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Hopefully, her latest effort doesn’t fly under the radar.
The protagonist of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is the grossly named Lloyd Vogel, a cynical, world-weary journalist who’s assigned to profile Mr. Rogers for Esquire. Vogel is loosely based on Tom Junod, a journalist who actually did profile Mr. Rogers for Esquire (with an article titled “Can You Say…Hero?”), but his life has been heavily fictionalized to better facilitate life lessons. You see, Lloyd hates his father, but the elder Vogel is trying to reconnect after years of estrangement, all while Lloyd is trying to adjust to being a new father himself. It’s during this tumultuous time that Lloyd meets and interviews Mr. Rogers, whose words of wisdom help Lloyd begin to heal his relationships.
If it sounds a bit tidy and trite, that’s because it is. The movie’s screenplay is its weakest link. Vogel’s fictional struggles have been constructed for maximum solvability—his conflicts amount to square pegs lying next to square holes—which makes Vogel’s jump from cynicism to sincerity too simple to be convincing. Each of his conversations with Mr. Rogers features the perfect key to unlock just the right lock, opening doors in Vogel’s heart with the sanitized precision of a robot performing surgery. It’s perfunctory sentiment.
Heller’s direction, though, is anything but. She directs like Fred Rogers speaks: deliberately, slowly, leaving space for understanding. Building on the stylistic choices she made in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Heller places great emphasis on shots of characters reacting and listening amid dynamic events, finding meaning in the stillness at chaos’ center—in the eye of life’s storm, where one has a minute to self-reflect. Can You Ever Forgive Me? captured a woman who was forced into stillness and self-reflection by circumstance; A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood captures a man who chooses stillness and self-reflection despite all the reasons not to. The sense of timing established by editor Anne McCabe, who worked with Heller on Can You Ever Forgive Me? as well, makes Rogers’ slowness rapturous and desirable.
Heller also makes it achievable. Drawing another comparison to Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the New York setting is color graded to look drab and muted—a real, oppressive place, distinct from the heightened reality of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. If Fred Rogers can muster compassion in such a morose locale, then so can you. It won’t be easy, but Heller’s camera is aware that it wasn’t easy for Mr. Rogers either: in keeping with her patient, attentive style, there’s a shot in the movie that encapsulates the simultaneous sainthood and earthliness of Fred Rogers in a remarkable feat of emotive visualizing. Moments like that one make the movie soar far above its screenplay’s contrivances.
Tom Hanks helps too. He’s spent his late career appearing in the most wholesome places—including a Carly Rae Jepsen music video—making him a natural fit for Mr. Rogers. His cadence and mannerisms match the man perfectly, but what defines his performance is something that he shares with Marielle Heller: he seems to really, genuinely mean it.