It is a truth universally acknowledged that a biographical film about a well known man must not only acknowledge, but glorify, his work and personal life. Announced as an Oscar contender pretty much from the moment Tom Hanks accepted to play the part, Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood surprised audiences at TIFF for being a movie about Mr. Rogers—but not really. In fact, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is more about who is watching the screen than who is on it.
Marielle Heller’s third feature film focuses on Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a journalist known for his often offensive pieces, who is commissioned — very much to his surprise—to profile the iconic Fred Rogers for an issue about heroes. Vogel is based on real life journalist Tom Junod who profiled Mr. Rogers for Esquire’s 1998 November issue. In the film, Lloyd attempts to cope with parenthood on all fronts—managing his father’s reintegration in his life against his will after having abandoned him during his childhood, and managing the birth of his newborn alongside his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson).
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood starts quite simply. Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) enters his home in the neighborhood while singing the show’s theme song. He performs the entire ritual—takes off his coat, closes and opens and closes his red sweater, and puts on his blue shoes. At the end of the song, he takes his “picture board” and presents the audience to a photograph of a bruised-nose-Lloyd, breaking the forth wall and introducing the audience to the film’s main character. It would be wrong to say the film blurs fiction and reality. The film’s symbolic language is not used to disguise reality, but to reveal it, much like Mr. Rogers did through his neighborhood.
Similarly to her previous effort Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Heller’s new feature is meticulously orchestrated in a way that never feels abrasive, but the meta nature of A Beautiful Day gives the director more room to play with convention. The film manages to balance Lloyd’s personal issues with Mr. Rogers’ global impact by using him as an example of that same effect without ever dismissing Lloyd’s character or making Mr. Rogers look bigger than he is. Fred Rogers was, as mentioned by his wife Joanne (Maryann Plunkett), just a man who also dealt with a fair amount of anger. but worked hard to not let it get the best of him.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is ultimately a testimony of Mr. Rogers’ message—that feelings should be acknowledged and talked about, a notion that might seem obvious and even corny to skeptical adults like Lloyd and, as one particular moment in the film acknowledges: us. It is difficult to watch Heller’s film without going through any sort of introspection. The meta aspect of A Beautiful Day does not rely on praising its audience for catching a reference but on asking questions, a sort of Fleabag effect that works in reverse. Mr. Rogers looks at us as he looks at Lloyd, bugging him, making him turn his investigative journalism on himself.
At the end of the day, even if A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not exactly about Mr. Rogers, it is about Mr. Rogers’ mission, and that might be the best Mr. Rogers film after all.