We begin. It’s 1998 in New York City. A nine-year-old girl and her four-year-old brother are tucked into opposite sides of their worn, denim sofa. A boxy Zenith TV flickers to life and with it they fill their tiny lungs with air and belt out: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighbourhood!”
This scene is both specific and ubiquitous, taking place in living rooms across North America for over 30 years. The sofas may have changed but Mr Rogers always wore that red cardigan.
This enthusiasm is brought to more-than life in Marielle Heller’s not-a-biopic-biopic about Mr Rogers: A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood.
Perhaps you feel misled. A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood doesn’t actually begin in a living room with a denim sofa – that was your writer’s personal experience. But it does begin in 1998 in New York City, and it begins with a man named Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys).
We are dropped into Lloyd’s point of view and the movie rarely shifts from it. We experience Mr Rogers – by the time they meet, he’s already a children’s TV legend – as Lloyd experiences him: unflappably calm, curious and wise. But things are not calm for Lloyd. Lloyd is tackling his fears of failing as a father, his anger, his lack of trust, his cynicism and his grief.
And we become Lloyd, seeing the world through his eyes and feeling our fears, our own anger and grief. Anyone who has loved and lost will find it impossible not to be moved by the view through this intimate lens.
Framing Mr Rogers through the eyes of someone else, someone broken and angry and yearning for someone to teach him how to manage those feelings (even if he doesn’t know it) gives the audience a more intimate connection than if we were some invisible observer. Instead, we are there with Lloyd as Mr Rogers’ gaze penetrates the walls we’ve built around our feelings.
The movie takes its title from the theme song to Mr Rogers’ show, but the foundation of its story is based on the profile of Mr Rogers done by Esquire journalist Tom Junod in 1998.
The movie is not so concerned with concrete details, though. Some moments and dialogue are pulled directly from Junod’s profile but the film’s medium isn’t just narrative, it’s also emotive. Which makes sense for a movie about a man who dedicated his life to helping children deal with their feelings.
Joining Hanks and Rhys are Susan Kelechi Watson as Andrea Vogel (based on Junod’s wife) and Chris Cooper as Jerry Vogel (based on Junod’s father) both of whom are well rounded, complicated, whole human beings with their own fears, angers, desires and grief.
As for Tom, there is no one better suited to play Mr Fred Rogers than Mr Tom Hanks, who shines in the role. Hanks never disappears into his characters as, say, Charlize Theron might, but in this instance, that very trait works in the movie’s favour.
Each character is a note, their feelings a chord, and together the movie plays the scales of emotion from the sorrowful, lowest notes to the most joyful highs with ease.
We are with Andrea as she contends with being a new mom and putting her career on hold. We are with Jerry as he confronts his demons and takes responsibility for his actions. And we are with Lloyd as he opens himself up to Mr Rogers’ impossibly deep well of empathy.
Even for those who didn’t grow up curled into the corner of their sofa watching the TV flicker to life and belting out its theme song, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood will make you feel. Just that. Feel.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is out in the UK on December 6 and in the US on November 22.
Director: Marielle Heller; Starring: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, and Chris Cooper; Running time: 109 minutes; Certificate: PG
Digital Spy is launching a newsletter – sign up to get it sent straight to your inbox.