Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is without a shadow of a doubt the most lovely, patient, and life-affirming film of 2019.
Framed around the meeting of cynical Esquire journalist Tom Junod (played by Matthew Rhys, the name switched to Lloyd Vogel) and American children’s TV show personality and all-round national treasure Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) – or Mister Rogers as he is more affectionately known – for an article on American heroes, Heller’s film is a beautifully observed meditation on how important forgiveness is, and on how tiring anger is to carry on one’s shoulders.
Rogers embodied a beautiful philosophy that Heller snapshots perfectly – it takes the same amount of effort and work to be kind, as it does to be angry.
Vogel approaches his life from an angle of pent up frustration with the way his father left his dying mother, letting that guide him, burning bridges rather than building them, and risking losing those he loves simply to validate his own self-loathing.
Mister Rogers on the other hand is presented as a man with his own demons to battle – his wife Joanne (Maryann Plunkett) mentions that he swims lengths every day and plays piano to work out his own issues. He has simply learned to work them out in a way that doesn’t hurt himself or others.
For Mister Rogers, living in awe and wonder at life and all that living entails is his release from any suffering. It is the reason he can see a child wielding a sword with rage and remind him he is strong on the inside too, and it is the reason he can see Vogel’s cynicism, and still show gratitude for his presence in his life.
And it is in watching this unremitting optimism gradually rub off on Vogel that the film’s greatest joys are delivered, with Hanks’ effortlessly charming persona, and Rhys’ ‘good guy going through some things’ character playing off each other subtly and movingly.
Utilising the same caustic wit that made Can You Ever Forgive Me? such a delight, along with a sincere, empathetic directorial style, Heller navigates Rogers’ simple yet vital philosophy, and Vogel’s gradual submission to it with ease and flair.
Rather than presenting two ways of life and clearly signposting what is healthy and what is not, Heller instead rests just right between her two leading men’s minds and lives, gently forming a singular path on which the two meet that is soul-enriching and thought-provoking.
What could have been a by-the-numbers biopic is elevated by Heller’s willingness to indulge in the style and presentation of the original Mister Roger’s Neighbourhood show.
Intricately placed miniatures recreate those found in the show to act as establishing shots during the transitions between Rogers’ neighbourhood and Vogel’s New York home.
Meanwhile the whole film is placed within the wraparound framing of Rogers presenting an episode of his show that is all about Vogel, suggesting that the film as a whole is a lesson to be learned from, as well as a story to indulge ourselves in.
The lilting, xylophonic melodies from Mister Roger’s Neighbourhood act as the foundation for the film’s score, with classic numbers such as Won’t You Be My Neighbour, It’s Such A Good Feeling, and Sometimes People Are Good all performed with great verve and charm by Hanks, who also tickles the ivories during the film’s poignant conclusion.
Add in the occasionally old-timey fuzz of the lens and some sublime sequences of classic kids’ TV silliness (a dream sequence that sees Vogel adopt a puppet-sized perspective with full musical accompaniment is the kind of drug-free trip any number of 70’s shows revelled in), and you have a cinematic scale production of something with the intimacy, sincere schmaltz, and educational enrichment of Rogers’ own landmark TV show.
As mentioned before, the entire film revolves around the simple philosophy that it takes the same amount of effort and energy to be angry as it does to be kind, and by the time the credits roll, the world already feels just a little kinder for this film having existed.
A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood will be released in UK cinemas 6th December.