Fred Rogers is still magic.
Even 16 years after his death, his presence is still with us. This comforting voice who tells us it’s okay to feel the way we do when bad things happen. Now, as an adult, having watched Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (and have watched last year’s fantastic documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?), I’ve noticed Fred Rogers’ “trick” is he doesn’t tell us everything’s going to be okay, because he knows in a lot of cases it won’t be okay. But, instead, he focus in on how a child (or, let’s face it, an adult) is coping with things not being okay. It’s a big reason why he’s so beloved and why his voice can still bring tears to the eyes of the most hardened adult. For a lot of people, Fred Rogers is the first person who told us all the truth.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which just premiered here at the Toronto International Film Festival, is a bit of a strange bird. It’s absolutely not a biopic of Fred Rogers, played here by Tom Hanks. Instead, it’s a two-hour therapy session about the relationships we have with our parents and learning to cope with death, with Hanks’ Fred Rogers as a conduit. And I’m in a position in my life where I very much welcome this therapy session. But, others certainly may not feel that way. And, as Mr. Rogers would say, “and that’s okay.”
The film is smart enough to not get us too close to Rogers. Look, you just can’t. He’s almost too otherworldly: this heightened being, laying a gentle hand on us. If there’s a god, it wouldn’t be the worst thing if god turned out to be Fred Rogers. So, having said all that, there’s no real way to do a true biopic about this man. He’s one of the most human of all of us, but he’s not human.
The film is loosely based on a 1998 Esquire profile of Fred Rogers, focusing on the concept of heroes. But this narrative device is less, “hardened reporter is won over by Mister Rogers,” and more something a little more fantastical. There’s a scene in which the reporter, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), is shrunken down, wandering around King Friday XIII’s castle before having a heart to heart with Daniel, the tiger puppet. The set from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is used throughout the film in surreal ways, as the film tries to get into the head of Lloyd (and our heads, really) as he copes with his dying father (played by Chris Cooper).
Watching Hanks as Rogers is a strange experience at first. When the movie opens, he’s the first person we see, and, well, I laughed. But not in any kind of mocking way, it was just more one of those situations I didn’t know quite how to react, so I laughed. Because here’s the beloved Hanks playing the beloved Fred Rogers, it’s almost too much at first for a human brain to process. So, out comes a, “ha.”
I do worry about the perception of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood versus the reality. The marketing, not surprisingly, gives us a lot of Hanks as Rogers. And, yes, he’s always around – his presence being felt in every scene, whether Hanks actually appears in that scene or not. But there are a couple of stretches where Fred Rogers isn’t on screen for a considerable amount of time. I hope people realize this movie isn’t really about Mister Rogers. And, frankly, it’s not really about Lloyd Vogel either. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is about all of us and what our relationship was, and still is, with Fred Rogers. And how no matter what you may be going through, something he says can still help. It’s weird how almost every line of dialogue Hanks has as Rogers transcends straight through anyone he’s talking to on-screen and, instead, hits us, the viewer, right in the face. It’s a pretty remarkable thing. That is, if you’re willing to take that ride; if you’re willing to let Fred Rogers in there and bring out something you might not really want to think about right now. If that’s not the case, if you try to resist, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn’t going to work.
But, if you do open yourself up, there’s something wonderful to find in this movie. You won’t watch A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and learn more about Fred Rogers, but you will learn more about yourself. And it might not be easy, but, again, as Mister Rogers would say, “and that’s okay.”
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