4.5 out of 5
It's rare when a beautiful film comes along, and I mean a beautiful film. It's even rarer for a film to have me weeping within the first ten minutes. Marielle Heller's new film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is almost perfect. But before we talk about the film proper there are two things to address.
1. Spelling. As this is a US theatrical release, we're going with the US spelling of neighbourhood - so grammar Nazis please forgive me.
2. Most of you may not know who Fred Rogers is or his long-running, hugely successful US TV show, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. I've had the good fortune to live in the US and to have raised children there, so Mr Rogers was a big deal along with Sesame Street and Barney the Dinosaur. Mr Rogers' Neighborhood was one of the most famous children's TV shows but sadly remains largely unknown on this side of the Atlantic. US audiences will already know the character. For those outside the US you may wonder what all the fuss is about.
Two-time Oscar®-winner Tom Hanks portrays Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and it's a genuine surprise he hasn't been nominated for this role. The film is beautiful (I may have said that already). It's a timely story of kindness triumphing over cynicism, based on the true story of a real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod who worked for Esquire magazine. Junod's character has a name change to Lloyd Vogel, and is played by Emmy winner Matthew Rhys who is Welsh but maintains a perfect New York accent throughout. Vogel is assigned to write a profile of Fred Rogers for his magazine which is publishing an issue about heroes. Vogel is given plenty of back story and personal issues and baggage to deal with. Along the way, as he interacts with Fred Rogers, he overcomes his skepticism, learning about empathy, kindness, and decency from America's most beloved neighbor (sic). The film was released last Thanksgiving in the US and is only now getting a theatrical release on this side of the pond.
It is a very simple story and the journalistic trope with marital and familial issues is a well-worn one. Save for this, I would have given the film 5 stars. His initial approach to Rogers is probably one we all might have. He is deeply suspicious and wonders what is behind the mask, the genial persona. The answer is nothing. Rogers leads with kindness in all his interactions, seeking to find the good in people and helping "broken" people along the way. At one point Vogel asks Rogers what does he do when he gets angry or upset. Rogers says he plays all the low, bass notes on a piano - gives them a good bang.
Rhys is perfectly cast. He brings the right amount of skepticism, anger and appropriate vulnerability. Chris Cooper supports as his Dad and is both infuriating, as Dad's can be, and also cuts a lonely desperate figure. Vogel's wife, Andrea is played by Susan Kelechi Watson and I believe this is her feature debut. She is a little one-dimensional and really a bit-part to the two leads. But star casting is Hanks himself. He captures the innocence and kindness of Rogers really well - and can sing almost as well too!
The inspiration for the story is the real-life article that Tom Junod wrote about Rogers. Marielle Heller takes that and crafts a funny, peculiar, human film. There is a lovely scene at the end where Rogers, after finishing shooting the latest episode sits at the piano in the studio and plays to himself, pausing fro a moment to bang the bass notes.
You will laugh and you will cry. Go see this beautiful film.