Entirely truthful make-believe

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is the most beguiling thing, a movie that feels entirely truthful even within its own Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

Entirely truthful make-believe (photo credit: Courtesy)
Entirely truthful make-believe
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Loosely based on actual events, it follows the relationship between an ill-tempered magazine writer and the nicest man in America: Fred Rogers, or Mr. Rogers, as he is known to the millions of children who have embraced his long-running program. Directed with a gossamer-light touch by Marielle Heller, the picture occupies that eerie zone where drabness meets eccentricity, truth blurs into fiction, and a beloved TV personality can merge, almost seamlessly, with a beloved film actor.
That actor would be Tom Hanks, who quickly lays your doubts to rest in the movie’s daring, disarming prologue. With a song on his lips, Hanks’s Mr. Rogers walks into a familiar house and goes through a set of equally familiar motions, donning a red cardigan and a pair of sneakers. Soon, he is peering intently into the camera, the better for us to see every detail of the actor’s transformation, the graying hair and the twinkling smile. Mostly, though, we’re drawn in by the unhurried rhythms of his speech as he tells us about a friend of his, Lloyd Vogel, who’s going through a tough time.
This framing sequence is a remarkable feat of mimicry, a gentle mike drop of an intro that quickly establishes a mood of calm (as Mr. Rogers always should), but also a note of grown-up unease. The power of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, you may recall, had everything to do with the warmth and specificity of its approach, its compassionate regard for every member of the audience. Mr. Rogers may reach millions every week, but as he notes here, he always tries “to look through the camera into the eyes of a single child.”
Although its own audience skews a bit older, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood addresses the viewer with a similar intensity of feeling. One reason this tender, unabashedly therapeutic story is so effective – genuinely moving rather than trite in its plea for love, understanding and forgiveness – is that it seems to anticipate your every eye-roll. (It even indulges a few of its own, puncturing the saintly aura that has often coalesced around its famous subject.) It might be presumptuous of me to say that this movie spoke to me directly, or that it will have special resonance with any skeptical, embittered print journalists in the audience, but it wouldn’t necessarily be inaccurate.
In any case, you needn’t be a professional misanthrope to identify with Lloyd (Matthew Rhys), an Esquire journalist whose investigative pieces and celebrity takedowns have made him a scourge of the New York media establishment. Assigned by his editor (Christine Lahti) to write 400 flattering words on Mr. Rogers, a man known for his exemplary decency, Lloyd approaches the assignment with great reluctance and some resentment. His natural instinct is to seek out the untold, unflattering story, to shine the cold, hard light of reality on a guy who seems too good to be true.
Lloyd has his reasons for distrusting paternal authority figures, having long been estranged from his father, Jerry (a strong Chris Cooper), who abandoned the family during Lloyd’s childhood. When an aggressively remorseful Jerry pokes his head back into his son’s life, Lloyd responds with a punch in the face (and takes one in return). His inability to release his anger generates some tension with his loving wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), and also brings out his own ambivalent feelings about fatherhood with regard to their newborn son.
And so when Lloyd goes to interview Fred (as everyone calls him) at his Pittsburgh TV studio, it feels at first like a welcome distraction from home – that is, until Fred gently asks him about the gash on his face. Over the course of the movie, Fred will continue to turn each interview on its head, sidestepping Lloyd’s most pointed questions and asking a few of his own. With practiced skill and unforced compassion, he gets Lloyd to open up, to express the deep pain of his father’s abandonment and contemplate, for the first time, the possibility of forgiveness.
No less than Morgan Neville’s lovely documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood feels like a beam of kindness at a moment that profoundly needs it. And like that earlier film, it pays affectionate tribute to its famous subject without trying to plumb his psychological depths. A double bill would reveal more than a few shared insights, among them the Christian beliefs that led him to see goodness as a spiritual discipline, something to be practiced rigorously and relentlessly.
A more predictable biopic might have come at Mr. Rogers from a different angle or granted him the central role, but this one is up to something altogether different. Lloyd is a loose stand-in for journalist Tom Junod, who wrote a celebrated Esquire cover story on Rogers in 1998; the two forged a friendship that lasted until Rogers’s death in 2003. But while the emotional essence of that friendship has been largely preserved, much of the surrounding conflict, including Lloyd’s antipathy toward his father, was invented by screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster.
This fabrication matters less than you might think. The real Fred Rogers, after all, availed himself of fictional storytelling and puppet-play allegory, and he knew full well its power to illuminate complex human feelings in a way that unvarnished reality could not. Lloyd may be as much of a construct, in his way, as Daniel Tiger or King Friday XIII, but the movie crucially treats his emotional life with the utmost sincerity and seriousness. You see this in the acute rawness of Rhys’s performance, and also in the generous, uncondescending love in Mr. Rogers’s gaze.
And that gaze, to a remarkable extent, becomes our own. After The Diary of a Teenage Girl and last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood offers further evidence of Heller’s deftness and versatility as a filmmaker. She has a gift for finding the humor in melancholy and vice versa, and she clearly has a thing for surly writers.
Remarkably, she doesn’t just resurrect Fred Rogers as a character; she incarnates his spirit – playfully, humorously, philosophically. She appropriates the no-frills visual grammar of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, whether she’s using miniature buildings and trolley cars to transition between scenes or shooting in a faded, washed-out palette that evokes the look of old public television. (The cinematography is by the gifted Jody Lee Lipes.)
And she neither soft-pedals nor tries to explain the sheer oddness that proved inextricable from Mr. Rogers’s compassion, the degree to which he opposed a culture of hurry and worry, of vulgar sensationalism and consumerist excess. There’s a scene in which Mr. Rogers calls for a moment of silence – and if you’re lucky, brings the theater to a reflective standstill – that is as close to a sacred moment as I’ve experienced at the movies all year.
All this may sound terribly hokey and sentimental. The movie’s final passages, with their bittersweet notes of regret and reconciliation, are more prosaic (if no less touching) than what has come before. But I never felt manipulated by A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, in part because it’s so utterly transparent about what it’s doing. Here, it seems to be saying, was an extraordinary human being who, by offering the gift of his time and attention, couldn’t help but profoundly affect those he met. To watch this movie is to encounter him anew – not in the flesh, but in nearly every other way that matters.