Tuesday 15 February 2022

Movie Review: A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood (2019)

A deft biographical drama, A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood captures the spirit of Fred Rogers through an interviewer's own father-son story.

In 1998, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is a New York City-based writer for Esquire magazine with a reputation as a cynical and hard-nosed journalist. Married to Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), he is having trouble adjusting to being a new dad, and is not on speaking terms with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper). For an upcoming issue profiling heroes, Lloyd's editor assigns him a short puff-piece on children's television personality Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood fame.

Lloyd visits Rogers in Pittsburgh where the show is filmed, and a series of interviews ensue, with Lloyd frequently finding himself answering rather than asking questions. With Jerry desperately trying to reconnect with his son, Lloyd starts to understand that the life affirming, empathetic, and deeply caring Rogers selected him for an emotional rescue.

Deploying a clever structure based on actual events, A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood exhibits Rogers' essence with a delightful touch. The script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster places Rogers to the side as a secondary or even tertiary character, but then reveals his influence through interactions with an interviewer navigating a crisis. Director Marielle Heller stays out of the material's way, staging close-ups within modest sets to minimize distractions and allow humanity to shine. 

Rogers' positive impact on children is revered, and the television set charm is on full display as a well-rounded neighbourhood where all emotions are welcome. The film's intention is to appreciate Rogers' wisdom more universally, and the confines of the show are used as a framing device for a story about familial stress and angst. 

The conflicts between Lloyd, his father Jerry, and his wife Andrea stem from standard-fare daddy issues, but provide a sufficient structure to demonstrate Rogers' principles in action: respect, dignity, and acceptance; mature explanations; an even temperament; and sufficient trust to delve into difficult topics. Methods are as important as fundamentals: as portrayed by a calmly piercing Tom Hanks, Rogers focusses intently on the matter at hand and only on the person in front of him. And in that moment, nothing else matters.

Heller does enough to avoid a hagiography. Rogers' time-stands-still eccentricities are on display, often exasperating his staff. And on the infrequent occasions when Lloyd can get his questions answered, he probes Rogers' relationship with his own children, hinting at the pitfalls of living with a saintly personality. 

A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood adopts the calm attributes of its subject matter, celebrating quaintness in a good way: well-meaning, positive, and with just a hint of mischievous quirkiness.

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