WHAT IT’S ABOUT:
The true story of Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a veteran investigative reporter who is assigned a most unlikely story by his editor: a profile of beloved children’s entertainer, Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). At the same time, Lloyd’s estranged father comes crashing, literally, back into his life, even as he struggles to come to terms with being a new father himself. As his story slowly starts to take form, Lloyd soon discovers that what was supposed to be a “puff piece” on an entertainer who surely can’t be as nice as he looks, quickly becomes so much more – something that will change his life forever.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Mr Rogers is not necessarily a name that will be particularly familiar to South Africans. This beloved children’s entertainer ruled the airwaves in the United States for decades but, as far as I know, his programme did not make it to these shores. Certainly, though I have heard of him thanks to numerous references in pop culture, I’ve never seen a single episode of his incredibly long-running show. I also haven’t seen Won’t You Be My Neighbour?, the documentary on him that came out as recently as 2018 and has been readily available on Netflix in South Africa ever since. But, again, I’d wager that I’m still probably far more familiar with Fred Rogers than the majority of non-Americans.
I say this not because you need to know much about this fixture of American daytime television to enjoy A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood but because the experience of your first encounter with Fred Rogers - as played so brilliantly here by the one and only Tom Hanks (who is, let’s face it, basically Mr Rogers for adults) - will be very, very different to the generations of kids who grew up in his company.
There’s no getting past it, at least in his portrayal here (which is apparently very accurate), Mr Rogers was an incredibly creepy dude. He may have been a kids entertainer by day but it wouldn’t have been at all surprising to find out that he tortured small animals and wore other people’s skin in his off time. Certainly something similar happened with Jimmy Saville, the family-friendly BBC host and presenter who was adored in life but was later revealed to be a serial paedophile and rapist.
And yet, Mr Rogers was nothing of the sort. Not even remotely. The most shocking thing about Fred Rogers is that he apparently really was every bit as nice as he appeared to be on his TV programme.
Lloyd Vogel’s (Matthew Rhys, proving once again that no one is better at playing "sympathetically grizzled" than him) shift from contemptuous indifference to profiling a real-life Barney the Dinosaur to an almost obsessive interest in this unsettlingly enigmatic man is a perfect reflection of the audience’s (or at least my) own experience of the man.
This is never truer than in an early sequence of Vogel trying to interview Fred Rogers. Rogers was known for being a notoriously difficult interviewee as he was far more interested in befriending the interviewer than in answering the actual questions given to him but he almost comes across as belligerently non-cooperative, if not outright insane, in this scene; evading every question with a non sequitur in his flat, serene voice or pulling out one of his raggedy, old puppets to answer the questions for him. As someone who has done more than my share of interviews, I certainly shared Lloyd’s growing frustration with his subject but, by any reckoning, it was a deeply unnerving exchange.
It’s presumably not a spoiler to say that what grows from this exchange is a deepening friendship between the two men and the revelation that Mr Rogers may be a bit odd but that’s only the result of his almost supernatural lack of cynicism and egotism. It’s also not a spoiler to say that Mr Rogers’ trademark of broaching extremely difficult subjects with his young audience in a completely honest but perfectly calibrated and empathic manner will obviously have a positive impact on Lloyd’s own demons and difficulties.
Aside for being based on a true story, the basic plot here isn’t at all unpredictable in how it plays out but this single scene undercuts the film’s more obvious Capra-esque sentimentality – both for good and ill. Director, Marielle Heller, has made a name for herself with quirky and often brutally honest dramas like Can You Ever Forgive Me and Diary of a Teenage Girl (she also sometimes works as an actor and was most recently seen on-screen as Beth Harmon’s adoptive mother in the Queen’s Gambit) so it’s not entirely surprising that her take on Mr Rogers has an oh-so-slight serial killer vibe to it but while that does give a certain freshness to an ultimately fairly predictable plot, it’s a bit harder to give fully into its obvious emotional power.
That and the film’s slow pace are the only real reservations I have about what is an otherwise pretty excellent piece of work, though. The performances are uniformly great - none more so than its two leads - and there is a pleasing amount of depth to characters that could so easily have been broadly sketched caricatures. And, just because there’s some grit in the mix doesn’t mean that the Mr-Rogers-ness of it all is in any way overpowered as it deals with things like the complexities of parent-child relationships with clear-eyed but gentle straightforwardness.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is now available to stream on Netflix after spending a couple of months on DStv Box Office and iTunes. And for those of us who have neither a DStv subscription nor an Apple TV box and prefer watching films on a television to a laptop, this should be very welcome news indeed.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: