By Clinton Krute in the November-December 2019 Issue
Somewhere deep down, beneath layers of cultural detritus and a hard crust of protective cynicism, we’re all just kids at heart. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood takes this Freudian truism and turns it into a strangely beautiful and genuinely moving Winnicottian melodrama. Marielle Heller’s film tells the (true) story of joyless, embittered journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a man whose fractured relationship with his deadbeat dad (Chris Cooper) has brought him to the brink of professional and personal catastrophe. Luckily for Lloyd, he’s assigned by his editor at Esquire to write a 500-word puff piece on beloved PBS mainstay Mr. Fred Rogers.
Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) radiates warmth and an almost mystical serenity, and the filmmakers, to their credit, go all-in on portraying the children’s TV host as a saintlike figure whose goodness and wisdom lead Lloyd to salvation. And though the story itself verges on cliché—a sad, angry young man is redeemed through reconciliation with his sadder, angrier father— Heller’s visual and narrative ingenuity, along with the performances of Hanks and Cooper, elevate the subject matter.
Heller tells this grown-up story using techniques and textures borrowed directly from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, including grainy VHS interludes, sudden appearances of hand puppets, and establishing shots of rudimentary, toylike versions of Manhattan and Pittsburgh. By blending the very serious with the childlike, Heller’s film locates real feeling in what could easily have been a run-of-the-mill tearjerker.