Making a movie about Fred Rogers is a daunting task. Millions of Americans grew up in the Neighborhood and even now, nearly 20 years from his program’s final episode, Mister Rogers remains an almost universally beloved figure. All this to say that the bar was set awfully high for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. The film more than clears that bar. It excels for two specific reasons: Tom Hanks and Marielle Heller.
Hanks is so suited for the role of Mister Rogers that at times it feels like he’s just playing himself. This is, of course, not a criticism of the performance but rather the opposite. Despite bearing little physical resemblance to his muse, Hanks embodies a facet of Rogers far more crucial than his 143 pound frame. Genuine kindness, it’s the quality shared by both men and the essential ingredient that makes Tom Hanks’s performance shine.
Mister Rogers drew from an endless well of empathy in a manner that never felt forced. When you watched his show you always felt as though you were that one child he was speaking to through the TV. Hanks captures that patience and intentionality then deploys it as a veneer over the pain Rogers carried within. It’s truly a spectacular performance.
A perfectly cast Fred Rogers is only a small part of the battle however. Over the last few years Hollywood has seen a deluge of biopics and though many have released to box office enthusiasm, the formula is growing stale. Enter Marielle Heller.
At first glance Heller may seem like a strange choice to helm A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Her previous work — films about a promiscuous teenager sleeping with her mother’s boyfriend and the literary forgeries of a failing author respectively— doesn’t exactly jive with one of the most beloved figures in American history. Dig a little deeper and it becomes apparent that Heller was the perfect choice for this film.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood eschews many of the traditional elements that make up a biopic. Rather than focusing on Rogers, he’s cast to the supporting role as Heller tells us the story of Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys,) a hard-nosed journalist assigned to profile Mister Rogers.
Loosely based on real life journalist Tom Junod whose profile in Esquire inspired the film, Lloyd is struggling to balance his responsibilities as a new father and his dedication to his work. When he gets assigned the Rogers profile Lloyd is fresh off an altercation with his own estranged father. Centering the plot around Lloyd’s dynamic with his father allows the cinematic Rogers to slot seamlessly into the role his real life counterpart inhabited for nearly 40 years: mentor and confidant.
This decision makes A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood less a film about Mister Rogers and more about the effect Mister Rogers had on the individuals who took his lessons to heart. Fred Rogers’s life was one in service of others and it only makes sense that his biopic should take the form of a big screen episode of his namesake show.
Staging the film to play out like a Mister Rogers episode is far from the most important aspect of Heller’s direction though. What elevates A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is Heller’s laser focus on the insecurities of individuals and how they cope with those insecurities. It’s an attentiveness she shares with the late Mister Rogers and a through-line shes threaded through each of her films.
In her debut film, Diary of a Teenage Girl, Heller explored the mind of a sexually adventurous high schooler. It’s a high wire act of a film in which Heller avoids victimizing her protagonist while still empathizing with her. Throughout the the movie Minnie (Bel Powley) is dismayed by her appearance, rebelling sexually to validate her own insecurity.
Heller followed up last year with Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a poignant quasi-heist movie about a woman so afraid of her own voice that she made a living out of inventing the words of others. Both films are entertaining and beautiful in their own ways, both are implicitly about coming to terms with one’s self. It’s a sentiment she translates in a wholly new way to A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
Certainly Lloyd is insecure. He’s afraid of becoming his father and letting down his own son. His is character we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from Heller. Through multiple interviews with Rogers, Lloyd is able to resolve his inner struggle and come to terms with himself. The heart of this film however is not about Lloyd’s insecurities, it’s about Fred Rogers.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is about a man who took his own flaws and bruised self-estimated and channeled them into a relentless positivity in hopes that no one else would have to feel that way too. Its the reason that Heller was an inspired choice to direct as this is the sentiment shes been exploring on film for the entirety of her young career thus far.
As the film propels through its last moments and we see Fred Rogers pound the lowest keys on his piano, we see that his anguish is unresolved. Despite every child whose potential he has helped shepherd there is still a a part of himself that Mister Rogers cannot heal. He still feels sad sometimes, he still feels angry sometimes. And that’s okay.
9/10. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood doesn’t simply explain Mister Rogers, it captures his spirit by highlighting those he helped. The film is as lovely a portrait as the man who inspired it.