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Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2020)

My first peek into this American TV legend from 1968 to 2001 was in the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? which took a peek at the man, Fred Rogers and his life before and during his hugely successful TV program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

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I never grew up with Mister Rogers. My first peek into this American TV legend from 1968 to 2001 was in the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? which took a peek at the man, Fred Rogers and his life before and during his hugely successful TV program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. This film takes on a different approach, inspired by the 1998 article “Can You Say … Hero?” by Tom Junod, it looks at Mister Rogers’ impact on one person and how his emotional connection with his viewers supersedes age and nationality. 

Set in 1998, Lloyd (Matthew Rhys) is sent to write a piece on Mister Rogers for Esquire’s Hero edition of the magazine. Lloyd is the character who most viewers align themselves with; he’s cynical, emotionally stunted and focused on his job to a damaging extent. His relationship with his father, or lack thereof, Jerry (Chris Cooper) is played as the key to Lloyd’s problems, but it’s upon meeting Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), he begins to take a look at his personal and professional life. Rather than stick to traditionally interviewing, Lloyd struggles with Fred asking him questions and wanting to get to know him. What eventuates is a story of one man helping another find his way again, and it’s this heart of the film that captures hearts. 

The film isn’t a biopic and it doesn’t feel like one. Sure Lloyd is based off a real person and the friendship they developed, but the film does a great thing of showing the impact someone like Mister Rogers had on one person, as well as millions through television. It’s not really about Lloyd but about Mister Rogers getting all people to think back to their own childhood, the learnings they had as children and continuing it in their daily lives. Messages of forgiveness and friendship oozes out and shows us as Mister Rogers’ amazing ability to be kind to people and get them to pay that forward. And the film doesn’t just try to show Fred’s impact on children, but shows his own history of teaching young children about anger, sadness, fried and death. It’s all addressed subtly by director Marielle Heller, who slowly but meaningfully takes us in and out of Mister Roger’s world, with Lloyd as the vehicle to understand him, but also makes us think about how we behave in our daily lives. On a visual side of things, Heller shows us scenes from the program as if we are watching them on an old TV and all exterior shots use the same miniature set that the series was known for. And it’s this that makes it feel more like a fable made up to teach us something profound. 

The film is affecting and poignant. Rhys’ portrayal as Lloyd is heavy, filled with anger and sadness that can’t be expressed. But it’s also not a star making performance, as the film isn’t about him. Rather Hanks is as magnetic as ever, smiling and empowering every moment he’s on screen as Fred Rogers. When he talks, his words of kindness and love, it touches something inside you that you haven’t felt since your younger days. One scene that sees him staring into the camera, matched with a silent sequence, is entirely beautiful and heartfelt. He is a surrogate father who is wanting us to once again embrace the beauty of life and creates an atmosphere where we feel coddled and understood. The film isn’t so much a character study but about the impact one man had on people around him.

Thematically the story of a cynical protagonist having a change of heart has been seen multiple times and is one of the film’s great faults. But it’s ability to make this approach feel totally different from past stories and transport us to the character on so many levels is a testament to Heller’s art. But it’s a film about understanding people and being reminded of kindness and tries to evoke that optimism we had as children and reminds us to get back to that. Our eyes are opened to the love and support that does exist in the world, even when it doesn’t feel like it. And that is a truly amazing, self reflective experience that is rare in cinema. 

The Best

The story follows a beat by beat teleplay of so many other films. You get a sense of where the story is going right away. But ultimately that is the foundation for the other parts of the story to come forward.

The Rest

The story follows a beat by beat teleplay of so many other films. You get a sense of where the story is going right away. But ultimately that is the foundation for the other parts of the story to come forward.

Originally published on Back Row, 17 January, 2020.

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