DIRECTOR: MARIELLE HELLER | SCREENPLAY: MICAH FITZERMAN-BLUE, NOAH HARPSTER | STARRING: TOM HANKS, MATTHEW RHYS, CHRIS COOPER | RELEASE DATE: JANUARY 31ST
It’s more than likely that most non-Americans won’t know who Fred Rogers was, and that’s okay! Lacking any knowledge of the children’s television show host will do nothing (or at least very little) to dampen the joy and warmth which exude from Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood.
The story is loosely based on the friendship between Rogers and the journalist Tom Junod, who in 1998 profiled the former for Esquire magazine. Here, the film’s protagonist is named Lloyd Vogel (Rhys), a cynical, embittered journalist and father-to-be who views his latest assignment – “a puff piece” – as a demotion and waste of his talents.
Huffing and puffing, Vogel arrives at Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood studio to interview Rogers (Hanks) and is caught off guard by the presenter’s quiet empathy and unusual kindness. Though Vogel starts off looking for the darker side of his subject’s character, he gradually realises that Mister Rogers on screen is the same person as Fred Rogers off-screen. This meeting also comes at an opportune time for Vogel, whose estranged father (Cooper) has recently come back into his son’s life wanting to make amends.
Before you turn away from Beautiful Day, sick as you might be of the awards-season biopic onslaught or of sickly-sweet feel-good films, let’s get this clear: Heller’s third feature is neither of those things. If anything, it’s more of a father-son story in which Rogers plays a key role, teaching the protagonist that love and forgiveness are acts of strength, not weakness. Beautiful Day has been touted as ‘the film we need right now’, and it’s tough not to agree.
Heller adeptly avoids turning this into a sickly-sweet, sentimental or even preachy story; much like the film’s subject, she refuses to infantilise her audience. Instead, she cleverly utilises Vogel as a conduit for the audience’s own cynicism and instinctive resistance to love: as the character’s defences are gradually lowered, so are the viewer’s. Beautiful Day is about how Mister Rogers’ lessons and worldview can be applied to how we interact with the world around us.
The film makes a point of demonstrating that kindness is hard, even for those who give it readily. Fred Rogers is not a saint, he is someone who constantly struggles to choose empathy over anger, something which Hanks’ subtle yet communicative performance makes clear. It is his ability to make that choice again and again that makes him a ‘hero’, as per the Esquire article’s headline. Likewise, the audience relates to Vogel’s resentment towards his father, and understand the difficulty in forgiveness.
As warm and feel-good as Beautiful Day might be, it is also very open about the fact that not only is empathy necessary, it’s also something that’s difficult and must actively be worked at – even for someone as good as Fred Rogers. That’s the kind of story worth seeing.