A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Dir: Marielle Heller
I’ve not seen a single episode of ‘Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood’, I don’t think it was ever aired in the U.K. and it’s never been a part of the zeitgeist here, so I’m really glad I watched the excellent documentary ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor’ on Netflix as a foundation for seeing this, partly as it prepared me for the revelations about Mr. Roger’s nature that the protagonist of this film seeks to uncover.
Journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is tasked to write a simple piece about national treasure Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) but his cynicism leads him to dig deeper, looking for a dark side to the beloved children’s television personality.
I have no nostalgic or emotional connection to the show, I first heard about Mr. Rogers a couple of years ago when the documentary film ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbour’ was doing particularly well and critics were enthusing about it all over YouTube. I didn’t watch it at the time but later saw it on Netflix in preparation for this movie being released. I also enjoyed a few interviews with Tom Hanks doing the rounds on the promotional tour for this film, all of which made me want to see it even more.
Director Marielle Heller is on a clear upward trajectory. Last year her film ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ did surprisingly well, even getting a couple of Academy Award nominations and boosted massively by Richard E. Grant’s enthusiastic campaigning. I liked it but didn’t love it as much as some seemed to, the story was fascinating and the characters were well portrayed but not exactly endearing. This was a far more enjoyable film, largely helped by the likeability of the lead, and one that’s lingering with me more substantially.
Heller’s clearly getting more confident as a filmmaker and makes some bold choices in this film. Charmingly, the film makes use of scale models to depict exterior locations throughout, akin to the neighborhood of Mr. Rogers’ show. When the first shot like this appeared I thought it might just be used once but they are used repeatedly for the wide external shots, an interesting choice that’s then given a bit more time in the closing credits.
Midway through their first interview together the camera switches sides, deliberately breaking the ‘rule’ of crossing the line. This move comes as there’s a shift in the conversation, from the interviewer asking the questions to the interviewee, a clear change of perspective in many ways. It’s a brilliant little visual touch that may be missed by some, standing out to me as I have studied film, but it has the clear effect of changing the tone of their conversation and turning it from a one-sided interview scenario, into the foundation of something more personal, a friendship between the two men.
The story is more that of the formation of an unexpected friendship, than the journalistic expose that one of the characters is convinced he’s going to be writing. Given that, it’s not a story that relies on dramatic moments or gripping storytelling, it’s more about connection and reconnection, quite introspective. I’d even have to say it’s not a biopic, for that it’d be hard to do anything that adds to the documentary ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ which was a very satisfying piece that explains the cultural impact and personal life of Fred Rogers, it takes just a small chapter in his life, one that touches on the rest, and forms a largely-dramatized story around it. Tom Hanks is perfectly cast in his role, not because of any uncanny physical resemblance, but more the similarities of his warm avuncular demeanor.
The lead character Lloyd Vogel is a constructed character based on journalist Tom Junod, and while the article he’s writing in the film is real as is the resulting friendship, the character isn’t exactly Tom Junod. From this, it’s got to be acknowledged that the film is not exactly a biography or entirely accurate depiction of the interview and resulting friendship. Lloyd Vogel being only based on Junod and not wholly accurate is then better able to serve the narrative with a complex personal life, a difficult family situation to which the warmth of Fred Rogers and his positive influence can have a movie-friendy impact. It’s understandable that Heller and writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster use the circumstances and results of the interview as a launching point to tell an emotive story, making full use of the dramatic license for emotional impact.
I do think I might have enjoyed it even more if I had an emotional connection to Mr. Rogers, nostalgia has a powerful effect and it’s almost a shame that I couldn’t bring any of that to my watching it, For those who do, I expect they’ll love this, and if you don’t I highly recommend watching ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor’ first to establish some sort of foundation and connection to Mr. Rogers and his Neighborhood.
Thinking about this film has got the theme song stuck in my head again, it’s a friendly, catchy ditty, one that though it wasn’t performed in full, was used to open the Oscars along with imagery that evoked all the warm and friendly bits of ‘Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood’ for the largely American audience. The film got just one nomination for Tom Hanks’ supporting role, although he didn’t win which was unsurprising as though this is a brilliant depiction of a beloved personality, Hanks has had a lot of better roles in other more powerful films.