Photo: IMDB

In the new film from director Marielle Heller (whose Can You Ever Forgive Me? was a sleeper last year), Matthew Rhys stars as Lloyd, an Esquire Magazine writer assigned to cover Fred Rogers (played by Tom Hanks). Lloyd’s volatile relationship with his father (played by Chris Cooper, in a vivid turn) has made him a brittle journalist and an unlikely candidate to write about a cheerful children’s television host. Lloyd’s encounters with Rogers are sometimes surreal, though Rogers immediately recognizes that Lloyd is truly hurting. It’s based on a 1998 article written by Tom Junod.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood doesn’t begin in the real world and explore the Land of Make Believe, it does the exact opposite: Heller’s film begins inside the sweet, quaint universe of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” (complete with the corny tone and lovely miniatures) and builds its story outward from there. It’s a bold concept that makes for a film that is strange, very funny, and wonderful. 

In his opening moments, Hanks is hard to buy as this immensely iconic figure – at first, it seems like he’s kidding. As the introduction goes by we realize he isn’t, and neither is the film. Hanks is not an exact visual or vocal duplication of Rogers, which is fine. In fact, his work is so nuanced and compelling, I grew to accept him as the character and would sometimes forget I was watching an iconic actor. This isn’t akin to Hanks’ admirable but heavily sanitized take on Walt Disney; here, Hanks leans into the qualities that make Rogers so weird (his penetrating stare, peculiar cadence, and tendency to get in our personal space). These qualities make the character complex, real, and vulnerable. 

Rhys has a perfect face for this role. He bears a look of a rough bemusement and is fun to watch as Rogers both puzzles and delights him. Cooper is exceptional in a difficult role and Susan Kelechi Watson is excellent playing Lloyd’s wife. As in her previous film, Heller inspires surprising, deeply felt work from her cast.

At the midpoint, the film takes its whimsical approach as far as it can go, with a dream sequence in which Lloyd is a character on Rogers’ show; the scene is a major miscalculation, one that I feared would derail the entire film. Instead, the tone is re-established, and the movie course-corrects itself. In fact, what follows is a diner scene that I won’t describe but will say is one of the most poetic movie moments of the year.

While not an overly stylish film, the decision to frame the story with shots of models for exteriors, a soundtrack that mimics the twinkle of the Rogers TV show score, and the earnest addressing of painful feelings are risky. If you found “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” to be odd and the man himself to be a pleasant oddball, this film won’t change your mind. It does, however, offer a moving observation: Mr. Rogers was genuine, childlike, and affecting in his way because he hurt as much as we do. 

The third act develops in a way that invites a maudlin resolution but somehow avoids it. For a movie so open about discussing how our inner turmoil can make us rot from the inside, there is genuine grit here that either counterbalances or flat out cancels sappy sentimentality. 

Coming a year after the tremendously impactful and near-perfect documentary, Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor, it didn’t seem like we needed another exploration of the gentle mystery and profound empathy present in Mr. Rogers but, indeed, we do. Finally, what kind of world are we living in that we need to turn to Mr. Rogers for comfort? How can things have become so cynical, life so hopeless, and daily news so crushing that we look to a deceased children’s TV show host for demonstrations of humanity? While a period piece, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is for all of us, right now. In an age where there are no heroes and most of us are frustrated, the words of Mr. Rogers, of all people, are profound for their simple quality: compassion.

Three and a Half stars

Rated PG/109 Min.

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