Directed by Marielle Heller | Written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster | 108 min | Netflix
I often wonder when I see biopics, whether a documentary on the same subject wouldn’t be more emotionally engaging. Occasionally you can make the direct comparison: I watched the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic, On The Basis Of Sex, and found it wanting in comparison to the fascinating doc, RBG.
Now we have A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, coming a year behind Won’t You Be My Neighbour? But what director Mari Heller does with her film never feels redundant. Instead, it’s remarkable, telling the story of the friendship that blossoms between a magazine writer and Fred Rogers, placing the beloved children’s entertainer in a supporting character.
Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is the writer, a fictionalized version of Tom Junod, who wrote a feature in Esquire Magazine about Mr Rogers (Tom Hanks). Vogel’s editor (Christine Lahti, always good to see her) lets it slip that he isn’t widely liked by the subjects of his stories, so she assigns him a “puff piece” to soften his edges: 400 words on Rogers. Vogel’s wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), is raising a newborn son with maybe less help from him than she’s owed, and he’s got a fraught relationship with his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper). While Vogel is initially unimpressed with his assignment, his interviews with Rogers prove, it’s fair to say, transformative.
I was also initially unimpressed with A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood. The throwback aesthetic in the production design, an effort to recreate the familiar opening of Mr Rogers’ Neighbourhood, with the miniature town, and then expand that to other cities like New York, it felt a little simplistic and whole bunch of twee. Seeing the story through the perspective of a writer was also the tack of other biopics like My Week With Marilyn and My Dinner With Hervé, which you could argue is played out.
Once Vogel gets to sit down with Rogers, Vogel’s caustic vibe is noted and instantly countered by Rogers’ enveloping warmth and deeply mindful approach. If you’ve seen the documentary, you’ll remember some of the themes and intentions of Rogers’ show—being honest about feelings, managing strong emotions like anger, and being grateful. Those elements get brought up here, but they’re digested in the perspective of a skeptic, garnished with a surprising dream sequence and other unexpected touches. The picture actually encourages personal healing and kindness without being soppy. At a time of so much polarity and political divisiveness, a story like this feels like a step in the right direction.
Two scenes in this picture absolutely destroyed me. One’s set in a New York subway car, and the other in a Chinese food restaurant. That second one shouldn’t work, but it absolutely does, and then some.
It’s worth mentioning that the performances include solid work by Enrico Colantoni as Bill, Rogers’ manager, but I’ll save special recognition for the institution that is Tom Hanks. The actor has been first on the call sheet in feature films since 1984, so it would be easy to think he just can’t surprise us anymore. Then he pulls on Fred Rogers’ cardigan, and even though he doesn’t really look or sound like the late Rogers, he somehow manages to convey the tone and spirit of this lovely man in this lovely film.