Film review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is THE feel-good must-watch film of early 2020.

An utterly serene experience, it will leave you happier, kinder and more content. If any film will inspire you to take up that new hobby you’ve been putting off or to love thy neighbour, it’s this one.

The biopic depicts a snapshot of the life of Mr Rogers (Tom Hanks) inspired by the 1998 Esquire article “Can you say…Hero?” by journalist Tom Junod.

The film reimagines this real journalist into a fictional one named Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) who is deeply troubled by his relationship with his father. The story is simple: Lloyd is sent to profile Mr Rogers for a feature after building up a journalistic reputation so toxic no-one else would allow themselves to be interviewed by him.

As they strike up a peculiar friendship, Mr Rogers slowly influences Lloyd to confront his issues, resulting in a bittersweet reunion with his father.

What is so particularly powerful about the film’s portrayal of Mr Rogers, true to what we know of his real-life counterpart, is how simply kind he is. Simple is the word. He talks in a language anyone can understand because of its frankness and directness, much like the children he cares for so deeply.

He never pries or pretends to know how Lloyd feels, or even offer advice specific to Lloyd’s troubles. He just provides gentleness and a sympathetic ear, and prompts reflection. In countless scenes, as Lloyd attempts to interview him about his life, Mr Rogers instead jumps on things that interest him – toys, people around him, and Lloyd’s own raw feelings – and instead asks how Lloyd is feeling.

Lloyd becomes irritated at this conversational sleight of hand and desperately seeks an answer to what he’s really hiding, unable to accept that he really is just that nice. But he really is just that nice.

Whilst it’s obvious that Lloyd is depicted as more jaded than most, it’s easy to understand his misgivings. Unfortunately, I think many of us would smell a non-existent rat if we met someone like Mr Rogers, instinctively distrustful that anyone could be so purely kind because our own experiences are less positive.

It is in that way the film really lifts you and makes you understand just how special Mr Rogers, and the countless unnamed good souls like him, really are. Their gentleness and goodwill can take you off guard and even prompt you to lash out (as Lloyd does).

Ultimately though, their hearts are so warm that they always forgive you, if they even take offence. A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is a fantastic film because it made me take a moment to reflect on the kind and patient people in my life, it made me feel good, and it got me to reflect on the good legacy left by the real Mr Rogers.

It almost goes without saying that Tom Hanks’ performance is phenomenal, really capturing the real Fred Rogers’ soul and giving a performance I think he would have been touched to watch. Matthew Rhys also performs an inspired version of the fictional Lloyd Vogel, bringing to life the pain of generational family disputes and estrangement.

Chris Cooper, playing Jerry Vogel (Lloyd’s dad) should also get an honourable mention for such a convincing portrayal of an ultimately redeemable but outwardly toxic father figure. Susan Kelechi Watson, playing Lloyd’s wife Andrea, also captured so well that look of the tired patience so many of us give to our loved ones who need help, but refuse to get it.

A noteworthy choice in the film’s direction is that, despite the strong Christian principles in Mr Rogers’ work and the article the film is based on, this production downplays the religious element to its credit.

Rather than focus on the theological element to the wisdom Mr Rogers provides, the film makes his advice much broader and about the power of altruism with no particular motive.

This was a fantastic choice – not only because religion can be jarring for a modern, mostly non-religious audience, but also because it expands his lessons of goodwill for all faiths, and champions doing good for doing good’s sake.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood has a wonderful hallucinogenic quality which makes you leave the cinema without specific memories, but instead a feeling. That feeling wanders from the tips of your fingers to the ends of your toes – it’s a cinematic experience which is magical. Go and see this film before it stops showing, because it will brighten your day.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures, with thanks. 

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