A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is anticipated as “The Mister Rogers Movie,” an understandable expectation with since the TV icon’s legend has grown in the 16 years since his death, and exponentially so within the last five, as the country has entered a period of such hatred and division that many of us wish we had that empathetic neighbor to lean on. That collective unrest is at the core of this film, for it’s not a film about Fred Rogers, but one that directly channels our need for the kindness and understanding he represented. It’s about us, the searching, disaffected masses, lost in the darkness of this present reality and wishing we could be corralled by the simple grace of compassion.
That context explains director Marielle Heller’s pathway into the Mister Rogers universe, with its clunky cityscape models, puppets with silly voices, and earnestness that would otherwise seem foreign in any film from the director of The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Can You Ever Forgive Me? Heller is quickly developing into an auteur of human ennui with a kicker of sardonic wit, a thematic focus that doesn’t seem to jibe with the Rogers mythos. But then, the real world doesn’t jibe with it, either. It’s that antithetical divide that fascinates Heller – how the simple world of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is a welcome refuge from the harshness of reality, and how as we get older, it becomes harder and harder to find that shelter.
That’s precisely the situation Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) finds himself in, struggling with the responsibilities of being a new father, harboring deep-seated family resentments, surviving only on his identity as an uncompromising journalist. Naturally, the cynical Lloyd is loath to accept an assignment writing an Esquire profile of Fred Rogers, the kind of ridiculous puff piece that’s beneath his journalistic standards. But Lloyd is in a bind: his reputation is that of a cutting, vicious writer that no one else is willing to talk to anymore. So he travels from New York to Rogers’ home base in Pittsburgh to enter the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
Since this story is inspired by journalist Tom Junod’s real-life friendship with Fred Rogers, we know that eventually Lloyd will be transformed by TV’s paragon of virtue. What’s surprising is how the film frames the relationship in a way that taps directly to the audience’s perception of the Mister Rogers television persona. Lloyd’s interactions with Rogers are not the interactions of two dudes bonding over their shared angst. Rogers functions as Lloyd’s therapist, with a more personal touch. Tom Hanks plays Rogers as one whose real-life behavior is indistinguishable from his TV character. He’s endlessly inquisitive, gently probing to learn, almost childlike in his curiosity, though his aptitude for shifting a conversation’s focus reveals the maturity of his communication skills. Try as Lloyd might to push Rogers to reveal more of himself, the conversation always shifts back to Lloyd’s pain, how he can accept it and move forward. The one-sided nature of the discussions resembles the framework of the TV program, with Mister Rogers as the compassionate figure helping the viewer cope with the world.
Such a narrative conceit is frustrating at first, as though the filmmakers didn’t know enough about the real Fred Rogers and used his well-known saintly character as this facile object of affection. Gradually, however, we realize that’s the point – that was the “real” Fred Rogers…at least the only version Rogers himself shared with the world. His capacity for kindness permitted a generation of children to view him as their ideal for understanding, and that genuine selfless interest in other people allowed Rogers to remain something of an elusive figure. Even a documentary as lovely as last year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? couldn’t move beyond a high-level recounting of Fred Rogers’ pathos. Instead of manufacturing faux-profound personal revelations, Heller leans into the mystique, with Hanks portraying an earthbound guardian angel who remains just out of reach. We become transfixed by him the way we were transfixed as kids, consumed even as we are kept at arm’s length.
There is a pivotal exchange late in the film in which Lloyd asks Fred if his sons felt a burden by virtue of having Mister Rogers as their dad. Fred goes silent, pondering the implications of reconciling his superhuman image with the fully human pursuit of raising children, and there is a sense of regret in his voice when he acknowledges that his sons did carry that burden for much of their lives. But this film is more interested in Fred’s burden, of maintaining this image he created, of being every child’s rock, of never yielding in his human curiosity even when that meant being exposed to deep sadness. Perhaps Heller, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, understand Mister Rogers as well as anyone can: a willful reflector of the human condition, understanding humanity’s failings without outwardly embodying them, offering his empathy as our catharsis. We can’t really know him because what we hold dear is what he allowed us all to project onto him. That was his burden; that was his sacrifice.