“Hello, Neighbor.” Words uttered with such softness and good intentions that only a warm feeling of love and acceptance can wash over you. That was the power of the great Fred Rogers, a legendary children’s television host whose teachings had a profound effect on the world and especially on the life of one man. That story comes to the big screen in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, courtesy of director Marielle Heller and this one is a film that will completely transfix you with its beautiful and engaging story.
An award-winning cynical journalist, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), begrudgingly accepts an assignment to write an Esquire profile piece on the beloved television icon Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) with Vogel’s perspective on life transformed after his encounter with Rogers.
Inspired by the 1998 Esquire Magazine ‘Can You Say Hero?’, director Marielle Heller takes audiences back in time to meet an extraordinary man in Fred Rogers and shines a light on his teachings and life in a film that deals with issues of compassion, healing and redemption. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a story of complex people in a complex world, and it’s not simply a narrative of warm fuzzies. There’s much going on in this story and it touches you on a very intellectual level with moments that move from light to dark as it explores what it means to be human. Heller’s work within the film is extremely introspective and thought-provoking and there is much that audiences can take away from this one.
Tom Hanks is an actor who is never one to disappoint, but in his turn as Fred Rogers, the actor outdoes himself with the construction of an incredibly complex and multi-faceted character who has considerable depth to his soul. Hanks visually fits the role of Rogers perfectly, and the famous red jacket certainly makes for a snug fit on the actor’s frame. While he’s adored by millions and appears to be the most kind-hearted and loveliest person on earth, Hanks’ Rogers would better be described as a man who is extremely self-reflective and unashamedly honest. While he shows kindness, interest and love to all that he meets, he’s very much a duality of a person who admits that he has his own faults, jealousies and insecurities. Hanks portrait of Fred Roger is a touching tribute to this great man that takes in every facet of who Rogers was and how he lived his life.
Cast opposite Hanks is Matthew Rhys as hard-charging investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel who is forced to slow down when given the job of profiling Rogers. In this space, he must reflect upon his own life and place in the world. When describing Rhys’ performance as Lloyd the word ‘normal’ is most appropriate as this jaded journalist is very much an everyman character whose own past has left him burnt out and who cannot seem to reach a higher level of peace. Where Rogers has found a way to achieve peace in his life and a unique sense of balance for his complex emotions, Lloyd very much sways in the opposite direction, and through this unique interaction Lloyd goes on quite a journey. Rhys’ performance as Lloyd is very much a way in for the audience to experience Rogers teachings and philosophy and as he has to reflect on his own life, so too is the audience asked to reflect on theirs. Rhys had a considerable challenge in bringing Lloyd to life and he holds his own alongside Hanks and the two make a great complementary pair on screen.
The relationship that builds out between Fred and Lloyd is the catalyst for the exploration of many different and complex themes within A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and it’s here that director Marielle Heller explores ideas of acceptance, faith and redemption. Heller’s focus on the road to self-acceptance is the path that Fred and Lloyd walk together here and it makes for a very moving journey. It’s in the film’s final and most tender scene where Fred drops by on Lloyd’s family that we truly see the portrait of sincerity and the film’s redemptive arc come full circle, and it’s in this moment that an amazing sense of depth washes over the audience over the message that is delivered by Fred.
Alongside its incredible character performances and deep thematic narrative points are the style in which A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is brought to the big screen. Heller lets her creative mind run free in this picture. And the resulting images are those of a film, that employs an almost documentary like-focus to its story, mixed with deep surrealism and an almost childlike sense of imagination that pulls you deeper into the narrative. There is a real artistic eye and focus here that is marvellous to look at and pulls you deeper into the events of the story. One moment that is a great example of this is when Lloyd hallucinates that he is a part of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood and finds the people in his life have become the characters that exist within Roger’s world. It’s a visually interesting use of subjective style, and it grabs your attention.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is an extremely poignant and important film and audiences will feel their souls move with this one. In the turbulent times that we live in, artistic portraits like these are integral to preserve ideas of dignity and love and the work that is accomplished in this brave film is an important watch for all cinemagoers.
Image: Sony Pictures