Often at film festivals, if the filmmakers and actors haven’t yet been swept away to their next glamorous red carpet, or the next, less glamorous press junket there’s an opportunity for audience members to ask questions. Often… those ‘questions’ aren’t the definition of glamorous either, but the filmmakers of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood were asked a rare gem at the TIFF screening I attended. They were asked if they were at all worried that two Mr Rogers films come out within roughly a year of one another.
Screenwriter Micah Fitzerman-Blue had a perfect response: “If there can be fourteen Marvel movies every year, why can’t there be two Mr. Rogers movies?”
The question was in regards to 2018’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary that garnered a lot of praise and nostalgia for the television icon, Fred Rogers. But to compare that film with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is to compare An Inconvenient Truth with The Day After Tomorrow. I don’t mean that as an insult to A Beautiful Day… but hyperbole tends to get the point across.
A Beautiful Day was never meant to be a documentary, in fact, you would be hard pressed to actually call it a Mr. Rogers film. Make no mistake, this is not a biopic. You won’t be taken on a trip through the years as we see a young Fred Rogers get inspired to start a perennial children’s show. We’re not shown how he falls in love with his wife of 50 years, Joanne. We don’t see when his son’s were born, in fact, we don’t see his sons on screen at all.
Instead, we get a film that captures the spirit of Fred. Which in this world is needed more than another biopic or documentary. There’s a reason Rogers can reach audience members who have never even seen his show, and that’s because A Beautiful Day shows us what it is to be human, and much like Rogers’ show, it doesn’t shy away from the negative aspects of humanity either.
The film really centres around writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) who is notoriously difficult on people he interviews. When his editor tells him to write a hilariously small 450 word ‘fluff piece’ on heroes, he’s told that Fred was the only one to accept. Vogel also has a myriad of personal issues; he’s at odds with his father (played brilliantly by Chris Cooper), he’s avoiding his wife and newborn at home, in fact, he seems dissatisfied with almost every aspect of his world. When he and Rogers meet for the interview, Fred quickly turns the tables on the jaded-journalist and begins interrogating Vogel. Their exchanges throughout the film mirror what Fred was always able to do, which is get people to open up and connect.
The brilliant format of the film is a major assist in getting the audience to let their guard down as well. It presents itself as an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, opening with the iconic prologue; the shoe swap, the sweater, the song. Mr. Rogers then, in that familiar slow and patient pace introduces us to Lloyd and his problems, and as we travel through the film, we never escape the show. Interludes of wistful tiny models break up the story. It brings us to a more innocent time as planes on strings remind us of the tiny joys in life, all while learning about the heaviness of it.
Fred, played by the equally perennial Tom Hanks is obviously integral to the story, but make no mistake, it is not his story. It was one of the more intriguing surprises of the film, and I really respected how the writers were able to make this equally about both Rogers and Vogel. The director, Marielle Heller had said she never wanted to make it a Mr. Rogers impression or an SNL parody, and as mentioned, it is the spirit of Rogers that blissfully carries you the entire time you watch. When watching Hanks’ performance, you’re not watching physical characteristics, ticks or speech pattern, you’re noticing the softness of his tone when he speaks, the warmth of his smile, and the soul of a real human being.
Vogel’s disgruntled nature is the embodiment of today’s world, and the dynamic between he and Rogers is exactly what audience’s today need to see. The film, and its message of hope, is the shot in the arm today’s world so desperately needs. A lot of us can relate to Lloyd’s pain, his dysfunctional family and general unhappiness, but I would like to think it’s not too late to remember what Fred and other great children’s entertainers taught us. We can grow. We can create. We can love. We can forgive.
Fitzerman-Blue reinforced this when he addressed the TIFF audience. “This is a story about forgiveness and how to forgive”. We might look at some of those forgotten tidbits that have been chipped away from our soul and scoff at the idea, but A Beautiful Day reminds us not only are these things natural, they can come back into our lives easily. When A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is released in theatres near the Holidays, I cannot recommend it enough. Go let in a little warmth, let in a little neighbourly friendliness, and make your day a little more beautiful.