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It hooks you immediately. Marielle Heller opens her Fred Rogers film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood with the musical cues of the theme song to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and we’re instantly transported to the living rooms of our collective childhood. The clever choice is less of a gimmick and more of a full device, as Heller’s Beautiful Day plays predominantly like a two-hour episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, with a pitch-perfect Hanks playing the tour guide through our feelings.
Heller’s emotional movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, held its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the first step on what should be a lengthy road through the Awards Season for our own contemporary American icon, Tom Hanks (and perhaps the rest of the film, depending on this season). Hanks is the ideal choice to embody Fred Rogers, but of course, you already knew that. You knew the minute it was announced, and you knew the minute Sony released that still of the Splash star in Rogers’ signature red cardigan.
Hanks wasn’t born to play Fred Rogers, but the life he’s lived has led us to this point, and it fits as well as the sneakers Rogers changes into at the start of every episode.
A debate broke out among journalists following the screening about the movie’s Oscars odds. It’s a film festival. Grotesque and tacky, admittedly, but this is how we make our bones. The question surrounding Tom Hanks’ gentle portrayal of Fred Rogers wasn’t around if he’ll get nominated, more about what category suits him best. While I argue lead – because this is Tom Hanks, after all – the consensus was Supporting Actor, as the movie’s not really his.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood instead focuses on Lloyd Vogel, a broken magazine journalist in need of emotional rescue, played by Matthew Rhys of The Americans. Lloyd has been assigned a 400-word profile of Fred Rogers for an issue dedicated to “heroes.” (Four hundred words! And he gets multiple drafts! The 1990s were a crazy time.)
As we learn, Rogers basically chose Vogel after reading his work. He sensed a soul that needed healing, as only Fred Rogers could. The fight for Vogel’s lost inner child was on.
The story may be Vogel’s, but the movie belongs to Hanks (to the point where the film noticeably struggles through the extended stretches when Fred Rogers is not on screen because Beautiful Day is tending to the faulty relationships in Vogel’s world).
And it goes beyond the darkened eyebrows and the squinty gaze that Hanks affects to portray Rogers. It’s the vocal cadence, the subdued and patiently slowed-down delivery of his supportive platitudes that breathe life into Hanks’ performance. His take on Fred Rogers is disarmingly gentle as he inquires into Vogel’s life. It’s mimicry, but it’s backed by an understanding of Rogers’s philosophy. And it works.
Fred Rogers wanted his lifestyle, one infused with limitless kindness, to be attainable. And so, the movie about Fred Rogers, and his influence on us, also is attainable and accessible. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood will be in theaters everywhere on November 22.