“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is the rare type of film that uses the language of childhood to communicate complex adult themes of acceptance, understanding and ultimately forgiveness.
The central arc of the plot follows Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) as he tries to focus less on his work as a journalist for Esquire magazine and more on his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), and newborn son, Gavin, while also reconciling with his estranged father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), who abandoned him and his sister at a pivotal point in their lives.
To say Lloyd isn’t emotionally stable is an understatement. He’s spent his entire adult life trying to shut himself off from the world and refusing to let go of the pain his mother’s death caused him during his childhood.
When the film opens in 1998, Lloyd’s steadfast refusal to focus on anything good in the world is setting him up to repeat the same mistakes his own father made without him even knowing what he’s doing. And, of course, this makes him the perfect foil for Mister Rogers: a man so wholesome he sends Lloyd into an existential tailspin, causing him to question everything he knows about life simply because he can’t grasp the truth that a person can see so much good in the world.
What both Lloyd and us in the audience come to learn throughout the movie is that Mister Rogers is not a saint and he’s not blind to pain and suffering. He just chooses to see sadness as a valuable and even important extension of happiness. His goal in life isn’t to prioritize one over the other but to say you need to cherish both to live meaningfully, no matter how difficult your life becomes.
One thing that pleasantly surprised me about “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” was how willing the filmmakers were to go to some pretty heavy emotional places.
However, the movie is so thoroughly indebted to Mister Rogers that he practically acts as our tour guide through the film’s 107-minute runtime, so the more somber emotional beats are always counterbalanced by scenes of genuine human affection that put the sadness we’re feeling in a healthy context.
And as far as the performance of Mister Rogers goes, you don’t need me to tell you that Tom Hanks was born to play this role. He’s an excellent example of an actor perfectly portraying a real person without having to look exactly like them. Hanks captures the deliberate cadence of Mister Rogers’ speech without coming across as condescending, exudes empathy with something as simple as a smile and serves as the film’s red-sweatered moral compass.
But what truly elevates “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” into a special film that I’ll be revisiting every holiday season is Marielle Heller’s wonderfully warm direction.
Her most recent film, last year’s superb “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” established her as a director who isn’t afraid to delve into the more difficult facets of forgiveness and redemption.
She likes to let us sit quietly with a scene while a character silently ruminates on the ways they’ve wronged other people and themselves in the process, and under her guidance, the tone of the movie is as patient as Mister Rogers himself.
For example, there’s an early scene where Lloyd is sent against his will to profile Mister Rogers on the set of his iconic PBS show.
Lloyd shows up to find Mister Rogers crouched on one knee, talking quietly to a young boy with an illness that requires him to use a breathing tube. Lloyd is told that the taping of the show has run an hour late and almost every taping is delayed because Mister Rogers feels so compelled to devote himself to other people.
When Lloyd finally gets his chance to interview Mister Rogers, he’s met with an interviewee who only wants to help him learn that he’s not a broken person like he thinks he is.
Heller mainly uses close-ups for the key scenes between the two so we can see the inner turmoil that Lloyd is facing and how that contrasts with the calm tranquility of Mister Rogers.
While the scenes seem simple, they become profound by inviting us to sit quietly with Lloyd in a cinematic and non-judgemental space that allows us to think about how to use our past pain to grow through forgiveness.
Last Minute Thoughts: If you liked “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” and want something else warm and comfortable to watch over the holidays, check out Martin Scorsese’s 2011 movie “Hugo.”
I also have to praise the art direction and score in the film. The music and sets featured in “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood” are immaculately re-created here and worked into the main plot of the movie in some especially clever ways I won’t spoil.
Check for showtimes here.