A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

When a film makes me cry (and by cry, I mean tears well up in my eyes and my throat gets tight, full on weeping has only happened once) it is rarely because the film is sad. It hardly ever happens during those emotionally manipulative films that just want to show the hardships of life in a thinly veiled attempt to make the audience cry and convince some viewers that they were good simply because they provoked some response. Instead, when a film makes me cry, it is during its moments of goodness. When a film shows the nobility, the selflessness, the inspiration of the human spirit, it can provoke the strongest emotional responses even when it isn’t attempting to be profound. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is one such film.

If there is someone out there who represents goodness more than Fred Rogers, the world still hasn’t found them. More than 16 years after his death, the world has been seeing something of a resurgence in Mr. Rogers media with a Google Doodle, numerous pieces of writing, television specials, and Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? being released in 2018 to tremendous praise. Some have questioned whether this abundance of Mr. Rogers could be too much but, in a world where hate is everywhere and tragedy occurs daily, the world would do well to consume as much Mr. Rogers as possible and internalize some of his messages. If we can have ten superhero films a year, we can certainly have at least one more about this real-life hero.

That’s essentially what Marielle Heller’s film is about. A fictionalised version of a real friendship between Fred Rogers and Tom Junod, it follows the cynical, award winning journalist Lloyd Vogel (a stand-in for Junod), as he tackles an assignment seemingly beneath him – profiling the acclaimed television icon as part of a piece about heroes. Initially skeptical of Rogers’s motivations and the efficacy of his methods, Vogel finds his outlook on his own life and the whole world challenged. It isn’t a groundbreaking new story, but it is the type of nice affirmation that some good does exist in the world that we all need sometimes, and the execution is masterful.

It may come as a surprise to learn that Mr. Rogers is only a supporting character in a film that is about him, but with the time Tom Hanks does have on screen, he elevates the whole film. Tom Hanks is undoubtedly one of the greatest actors working today but he has a tendency to play different versions of Tom Hanks. Apart from Forrest Gump, and even at times during that film, while he is able to create compelling and memorable characters, there are often instances where the character isn’t seen nearly so much as Hanks himself. In A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, however, after the first few minutes of seeing Hanks, he fades, and Fred Rogers entirely takes over. This isn’t to say that Tom Hanks isn’t still playing a character that fits squarely in line with many of his other performances, but for the first time in years, Hanks seems to have completely disappeared into a role and delivered some of his very best work. If there is any justice in this world, his nearly two decades of being ignored by the Academy Awards will come to an end now.

Though Hanks anchors the whole film, Matthew Rhys is a capable lead and Chris Cooper is wonderful as Vogel’s estranged father. Following the success of last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? which featured two of the best performances of 2018 from Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, Marielle Heller has once again proved her strength as one of the best directors of actors. Also like Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a subject that promised to be dry and uninteresting is presented primarily through dialogue but finds itself gripping and emotionally charged. There may be nothing flashy about the film beyond its star, but make no mistake, there is some expert directing at work that takes it from being a simple, manipulative, message movie to a serious and tenderly crafted film that is truly impactful. The profundity of simple acts of kindness, of forgiveness, and of acceptance cannot be overstated.

A-

A- Middleburg Review

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