Filmmaker Marielle Heller has an extraordinary talent for expressing the essence of a character through cinematic style. The chameleonic ability to visualize a story and the nature of the person at the center is a uniquely challenging task, one that requires both a special kind of insight and a willingness to disguise oneself in the material. In her third feature, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Heller has mastered this, infusing her film with the gentle spirit and good-natured soul of the iconic American children’s show host Fred Rogers.
Where Heller’s “Diary of a Teenage Girl” was a whirlwind of hormones and fantasy inspired by the graphic novel, and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” a wordy, melancholy rumination on a life’s lost potential, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is patient. It is kind. It stops and takes a minute (literally) to simply be present, to be grateful. It is a kind of gentle and deeply affecting filmmaking that is completely original and reflective of Rogers himself.
The film opens with a re-creation of the iconic introduction to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” in which Tom Hanks, as Rogers, hits every beat of the song, zipping up a cardigan, tossing loafers and tying laces. He brings out a picture board, revealing photos of his friends: Lady Aberlin, King Friday XIII and his new friend, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), looking stunned and bloody. The surreal moment sets the tone, which isn’t a biopic but an exploration of Rogers’ philosophy in action, a test of his power on a cynical man who believes himself broken.
Written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, the film is inspired by a 1998 Esquire cover story by Tom Junod titled, “Can You Say… Hero?” Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster imagine Lloyd as an investigative journalist with a hard-hitting reputation similar to Junod. He’s a brand-new father to a baby boy, but mired in a swamp of his own ire toward his own father (Chris Cooper), with whom he’s recently brawled at his own sister’s wedding.
Throughout “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Heller blends formats to pay tribute to Rogers’ chosen tool for building empathy: the television. She invokes the style of his show with miniature cityscapes that serve as interstitial exposition shots and toggles between the boxy televisual format of Pittsburgh public access TV to widescreen cinematic style. Rogers’ TV show enabled him to speak directly to children, and he used the access to make challenging feelings understandable. “Anything mentionable is manageable,” Fred tells Lloyd, and his gift is he can make unmentionable things manageable: in song, with puppets, with his slow cadence and steady presence.
The emotionally devastating effect of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is stealthy, creeping in like a fog. Perhaps it’s Cooper’s imperfect but genuine attempts at reconciliation, or maybe it’s the grace that descends on Lloyd, who can finally smile, kiss his wife and cradle his baby wholeheartedly. Perhaps it’s merely the space Rogers holds for all of them, for all of us, emanating a sense of attention and care with a sentiment as simple and powerful as, “I see you. You’re important.”
The simplicity and sincerity in Rogers’ sentiments is almost overwhelming. This is not a world where we often hear, “I like you just the way you are.” Heller and Hanks, as filmmaker and actor, work in tandem to allow these notions of kindness and presence to just exist, unadorned by fervor and dramatics. And that is what makes “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” so incredibly moving, and so incredibly radical.