By all accounts, Fred Rogers would stop the world from spinning in order to make a genuine connection with another person. There’s a moment in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood when the movie does something similar. At lunch with Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a magazine journalist sent to profile the television icon, Rogers (Tom Hanks) asks Lloyd to take a moment, close his eyes, and think about the people in his life who have loved him. Slowly, we notice that everyone in the restaurant has paused to do the same. The camera moves to Rogers, whose eyes slightly shift so that he’s looking directly into it, inviting us in the audience to also stop, quiet, and reflect.
Directed by Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?, The Diary of a Teenage Girl), A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood benefits from such surprising, almost surreal moments (at another point Lloyd has a dream in which he finds himself on the Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood set, shrunk to the size of a puppet). My favorite flourish is the decision to recreate the original TV show’s miniature streetscapes, complete with moving vehicles, and expand them to other locales as a way to transition between scenes. It’s a creative touch, as well as a reminder that the world isn’t as big and scary as we think—as long as we share our fears with someone who cares.
In A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Lloyd is the one with fears and Fred is the one who cares. Around the time he’s given the profile assignment, Lloyd has a vicious run-in with his estranged father, Jerry (Chris Cooper). When he arrives on the set, Fred instinctively senses Lloyd’s distress; after much cajoling—and exercises like the one in the restaurant—he gets Lloyd to open up and pursue reconciliation with his dad. (The film is loosely based on the experiences of Tom Junod, who profiled the real-life Rogers for Esquire in 1998.)
If all of this sounds a bit too touchy-feely, well, remember that Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood included a character named Mr. McFeely. Stone hearts need not apply. Some elements of the movie do feel too neat, and I wonder if its insistence on forgiveness justly recognizes the pain caused by Lloyd’s father. But then there are moments that are intriguingly complicated, as when Lloyd asks Fred, “Do you ever talk to anyone about the burden you carry?” Rogers narrows his eyes and angrily lowers his hands on the piano keys before him: Boooonggg! The suggestion is that Rogers’ maniacal care for others might also be an (unhealthy?) way to distract himself from his own pain.
How’s Hanks? Deft enough to manage such delicate moments, while still capturing the more public Fred Rogers we all knew and loved. The actor’s cadences and vocal register are different than the real Rogers (did I detect an illogical Southern accent here and there?), but he mostly embodies the lightness with which Rogers held the screen, the unhurried manner in which he spoke to people, and the way, while watching his show, the world stopped for a little while and you felt like someone deeply cared.