It’s a curious thing, a film about beloved children’s TV presenter Mr Rogers being received by a UK audience. Before last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, it’s fair to say that Fred Rogers was not in the public consciousness at all, and the main draw here is likely to be Tom Hanks rather than the man he’s playing.
It’s hard to even find an equivalent figure in British culture, which itself may be a symptom of our more cynical nature. But the film makes Rogers immediately inviting and familiar, and that’s in no small part down to the performances.
The film follows investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who is assigned to write a 400-word fluff piece on Rogers (Hanks) for Esquire‘s Heroes issue. After visiting the set and meeting Rogers, Lloyd becomes convinced that he can uncover the man behind the character, but his own issues with anger towards his father soon threaten to envelop him – issues that Roger’s brand of compassion is uniquely equipped to help with.
Hanks is startlingly excellent as Rogers who, despite appearances, is just one of two leads alongside an equally strong Rhys. Don’t be mistaken, this is not a biopic in the traditional sense of the word. It shows very little interest in delivering backstory or delving into the man’s childhood in the way we’ve come to presume, but rather presents him – up until the very last moment at least – through the eyes of Lloyd.
The deviation from expectations is ultimately what makes the film feel special, as it zigs and zags between fantasy, dream sequences and reality in a way that somehow never ends up feeling chaotic. Establishing shots are replaced with toy cityscapes straight out of an episode of the show, and we open on a mock scene that sees Mr Rogers introduce his audience – us – to Lloyd’s plight. Director Marielle Heller switches between a modern aesthetic and an ultra-convincing ’90s one, which sucks the viewer into the world even more.
This is an achievement all on its own, as it’s true that Hanks doesn’t particularly look like Rogers. It matters not a jot in the end, as the character is presented as half-myth, half-man, and those halves chop and change the further Lloyd gets in his investigation. We’re told (and importantly, shown) that Rogers isn’t the “living saint” he has been painted as by the public, but rather a man who makes an active choice to channel his emotions into radical kindness and understanding.
Like with Heller’s previous film, last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood sours its sweetness and compassion with an edge that constantly threatens to reveal darker truths and unpleasantness, but somehow always swerves at the last minute. There’s a satisfying knowingness when Lloyd’s wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), tells him not to ruin her childhood with some sort of torrid expose of a beloved public figure. It’s what we expect, too, and it makes how things unfold far more arresting as a result.
Along with the disposition of its cynical protagonist, the film’s set-up taps into that distinctly modern desire to tear down anyone who wears their goodness on their sleeve, as if such earnestness is a dangerous lie to be uncovered and we are merely working to reveal the truth for the greater good.
That instinct has led to a lot of positive change, but Heller is far more interested in a different kind of bravery. The extent to which the film leaves things up to the viewer to decide might leave some cold, but Lloyd’s story at least follows a conventional path (sometimes a little too conventional) that stops it from becoming unwieldy.
A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood‘s unwillingness to ‘expose’ Rogers ends up being a strength, and Hanks’ gentle yet nuanced performance disarms you at the most unexpected moments. The film is ultimately about what figures like him can mean if only we let them. At a time when true heroes are hard to find and even harder to hold on to, we must treasure them all the more.
A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood screened at the London Film Festival and hits UK cinemas on 31 January 2020.