A masterful display of minimalism
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019): Based on the true story of a real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod.
There’s a certain sense of tenable awe one feels when they think about the legacy of Mister Rogers. Whether you watched his program as a child or not, (yours truly would fall into that later category) Mister Rogers persona has become synonymous with generosity, kindness, and good-will. He was a genuine, down-to-earth person, and his program was overtly simple, yet poignant and touching. His legacy, and a wonderful example of his unwavering hospitality, was destined to find its ways into the hands of one of the most touching directors in the business today, Marielle Heller.
For those who don’t know, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is the latest work from director Marielle Heller (who previously directed last year’s overlooked and underappreciated film Can You Ever Forgive Me?, as well as 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl) and stars America’s real-life dad Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. The story follows reporter Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys and based on real-life reporter Tom Junod) as he is assigned to profile Mister Rogers for a real American heroes” segment in Esquire magazine. Lloyd is dealing (poorly, as we see in one of the film’s opening scenes) with a multitude of personal issues. He and his father are estranged (to put it mildly) and this estrangement has trickled down to Lloyd’s lack of intimate connection with his own newborn son, Gavin. These personal issues have seeped into his work, as well. Lloyd has developed a reputation for being a hard-assed reporter, searching for the worst in the people he’s interviewing. As we discover when Lloyd begrudgingly accepts the Mister Rogers assignment, no one else wanted to be interviewed by him.
While the film takes its time approaching the first interaction between Mister Rogers and Lloyd, the conversations they have throughout the film are some of the best film conversations I’ve seen all year. This is where the mastery of director Marielle Heller comes in. Her ability to make a simple conversation mesmeric is remarkable. Her use of shot reverse shot, the most simplistic technique in filmmaking, is perfect. It holds on the relevant character for the exact right length of time, is never distracting with too many edits, and lets us really see into the minds of these characters with its use of close ups and (to a lesser extent) mids. These exchanges between Lloyd and Mister Rogers are done mostly in close-up, which means there’s very little excess in the shot to distract you from the characters, what they are saying, and how they are saying it. The conversations between Mister Rogers and Lloyd are simple and intimate, yet they provide us, the viewers, with so much insight into their respective mentalities. Lloyd is troubled and cynical, while Fred Rogers is heartfelt, loving, and most of all genuinely concerned by Lloyd’s demeanor. Mister Rogers takes over these exchanges as they progress, and Marielle Heller’s cinematographer, Jody Lee Lipes, will show this transformation with a subtle change of the camera angle halfway through the scene. These exchanges between Lloyd and Mister Rogers are not just the best scenes this film has to offer, it’s some of the best scenes I’ve seen in any film all year, period.
The quietness of these scenes comes to a head in the third act. There is a scene between Mister Rogers and Lloyd that occurs in a diner in Pittsburgh, shortly after Lloyd experiences some particularly traumatic events and responds to them by fleeing to see Mister Rogers. In this scene, Mister Rogers asks Lloyd to sit back and think about all the people that love him for an entire minute. We, the audience, proceed to sit in silence with these characters for that entire minute, while the camera slowly and deliberately pans around Mister Rogers until he is looking directly into it and thus at us. This therapeutic minute was emotional and cathartic, a courageous inclusion by Marielle Heller in an age where most big budget films are terrified to have even a second of silence in their respective films. There were audible sniffles and tears throughout the theater as we shared in this incredibly touching and minimalistic moment.
While the minimalism is where this film excels, its gaudy moments are where it does not. There is one moment especially, a disorienting dream sequence Lloyd experiences when he flees his problems for Pittsburgh, that felt shockingly out-of-place. It was a glitzy, flamboyant moment that didn’t really fit into the overall narrative. It also took Marielle Heller out of her wheelhouse, and the filmmaking itself suffered as a result. Additionally, and likely my biggest complaint about the film, is in the performance of Matthew Rhys as Lloyd. While Tom Hanks was phenomenal as Mister Rogers, embodying that simple, minimalist approach Heller is skillful at conveying, Rhys’s performance felt very.... big. It was a showman performance reserved for a play, and at times it felt like the antithesis of Heller’s vision. However, despite Rhys’s out-of-place performance, it was more than made up for by Tom Hanks. It’s been a few years since I was truly blown away by a Tom Hanks performance, (I’d say Captain Phillips was the last one) but his casting as the iconic Fred Rogers was perfect. The brilliance of his performance was uncanny – it was almost soothing to hear the calming voice he donned to play the icon.
Despite its sporadic missteps, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a master work from a director at the height of her game right now. It’s very quiet, slow, and deliberate, but that feeling also embodies the show Mister Rogers created. This film’s formula is the very essence of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, right down to Heller’s decision to bookend this film with an episode of the show itself. While it may not be for those looking for an exciting thrill ride at the movies right now, (you can reserve that for something like Ford V Ferrari) those that are willing to stick with this 108 minute film will find it to be exceptionally rewarding and possibly even curative for their own personal problems. Even now, 16 years after his death, Mister Rogers is still helping to make us feel loved, just the way we are.
"Anything that is human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable is manageable." - Mister Rogers
My Number: 9/10
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