Is it cynical to say that the world feels like an uglier place, lately? One doesn’t have to travel too far, especially on the Internet, to see that there’s a lot of division and negativity. It feels like we’re not as patient with each other anymore, or as understanding, and kindness is something that is sorely lacking in most of our interactions.
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is more than just a tonic, for the world-weary viewer, it’s a restorative experience. For nearly two hours, there is an opportunity to be in the presence of something incredibly and truly warm. A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD may be the greatest form of film escapism to come out of 2019. And it’s a beautiful thing.
Contrary to what audiences might expect, following the wildly-popular 2018 documentary on Mr. Rogers Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is not a Fred Rogers biopic. The film is based on the friendship of Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod, which blossomed when Junod was asked to profile Mr. Rogers for a magazine.
The film is helmed by director Marielle Heller (who directed one of my 2018 personal favorites, Can You Ever Forgive Me?) with writers Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, both are known for their work on Amazon’s Transparent. A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD stars Matthew Rhys as cynical investigative reporter Lloyd Vogel and Tom Hanks in the role he was born to play, Mr. Fred Rogers.
As you can imagine, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD has near-instant appeal by virtue of the nostalgia attached to it but that feels like an oversimplification to just call it nostalgic. There’s what I call “junk food nostalgia.” That’s the kind of nostalgia that Buzzfeed deals in. “Junk food nostalgia” comes in the form of a trend you remember or an old TV show you used to know. It’s the kind of nostalgia that evokes the feeling of watching cartoons in your PJs on a Saturday morning. This is not the kind of nostalgia that we see in A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD.
The nostalgia of A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD goes deeper and returns you to whatever state of innocence you had before you learned that the world could be cold and hard. It’s the nostalgia of someone kissing a scraped knee after a fall. It’s hard to imagine, as an adult, that there was a time in our lives when we were learning how to be sad or mad or glad and that what we learned helped shape us. A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD invites us to return to that place.
Of course, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD doesn’t throw all childhood callbacks out the window. The film is uniquely formatted where much of the film feels like we’re watching an episode of the original show. Sequences of the film are incredibly innovative and stylish and tug on that ole nostalgia cord in each of us. More importantly, it keeps our inner child close by as we process the more adult themes. Hold onto that thought, we’re coming back to it.
Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers is the heart and soul of the film. Hanks gives an absolutely incredible performance built on the gentlest of nuance. He fully embodies the character and delivers a Fred Rogers that is both everything you imagined he’d be but incredibly grounded. I see a Best Actor nomination and maybe even a win for Hanks. In this film, he and his depiction of Rogers are pure love. Plain and simple.
Truly, that’s how one could summarize the whole of A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD: pure love. The film is just as warm and sincere as it is profound. More importantly, it is a film about connection. In the film, Fred Rogers is our guide in helping us find things to connect to, welcoming us to connect with him (as he did on the television show years ago), and reminds the characters of the film as well as the audience that we are all worthy of human understanding and connection.
For the portions of the film that follow the format of the TV show, one feels that Mr. Rogers is once again speaking directly to them. There is one particularly emotional moment, where Rogers calls for a moment of silence and the characters of the film fall into that silence. Tom Hanks looks directly into the camera, out at the viewing audience, and holds the gaze… and the auditorium observes silence along with him. Easily one of the most unique and moving moments that this critic has experienced in the theater, in years.
Beyond this very tangible connection, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD somehow manages to take the audience through the same journey as the character in the film. In the story, we see a character with many challenges to work through. His encounters with Rogers enable him to process these problems in a way he had not been able to before. Anyone who is familiar with Mr. Rogers, and this is well-illustrated in the film, knows that Mr. Rogers was particularly successful in being able to break down very dark subjects to help children understand. By keeping our inner child close at hand the result is that Mr. Rogers can speak to the audience in this way, even now.
The film is written and presented in that same spirit and Tom Hanks manages to bring the same quiet strength to the role. It’s crazy to think about, after this first viewing, but this critic found herself processing her own struggles right along with the characters as they faced their own. The film is a tearjerker, no doubt, but not for the reasons I had assumed it would be.
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD inspires. It is a beautifully constructed film, delivering the highest standard at every level. It leaves the viewer with the desire to be worthy of the gift that was Fred Rogers and assures that there are still beautiful days to be had in the neighborhood. If you ask this critic, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is the best film of the year.
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD arrives (by trolley, of course) in theaters on November 22, 2019.
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