I went to see “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” on Thanksgiving with two friends. The theater was empty, which surprised me. I thought it was the perfect selection for a day of reflection and giving thanks. I never watched “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” nor did my daughter, who we put in front of “Sesame Street.” Mr. Rogers was way too slow-moving for the likes of my fast-track mind. I now regret it.
The story is one of connection. An angry guy who has just had a child with a much more forgiving wife than I would have been is filled with rage at his father who ran out on a dying mother and two teens. The drunken father shows up now in hopes reconnecting, toward the end of his life, with his relatives who he has done wrong. Our long-suffering new dad is asked to write an article (the film is based on the real-life article, “Can You Say … Hero?” written by Tom Junod for an issue of Esquire magazine in 1998), and finds himself in front of the unrelenting goodness of Mr. Rogers, while himself enduring the pain of a wounded face from a father-son encounter gone wrong. At this point, the audience is given an inside track on what made Mr. Rogers what he was: thirty years of connecting with small children in ways we, unseeing adults didn’t take the time to figure out how to do. We get to see what forgiveness is made of and learn how it works so much better than words and actions that fester in us all over time.
I found myself crying during the film at times that didn’t warrant it — something about old stuffed animals and childhoods gone awry when we didn’t even realize it. It will touch you in ways you won’t understand and should journal about for days afterward to try to figure out. I’ll get back to you when I find the parallels in my own history that made me so raw at the end of this magnificent look at what makes us all tick and how to reset the clock when, as Mr. Rogers points out, we need to.
The acting is perfection. At first, I thought Forrest Gump had returned to the screen. Tom Hanks employs a bit of the slow-talking twang of Forrest in his portrayal of Fred Rogers, but either he loses it quickly or I’d become so engrossed in the storyline that I stopped noticing it; I’m not sure which. But the real star of this film is Matthew Rhys, whose native Scottish brogue and Russian spy character from “The Americans” was nowhere to be found. He so deftly communicates the transition of angry and hurt to controlled forgiveness and the shedding of that which never serves us well. The man has serious acting chops, and the difference between the roles he plays and the tools he needs to have to play them including simmering rage and decades of hurt, make him a strong contender for awards season. The character of his wife, played by Susan Kelechi Watson, is strong and nurturing throughout. Everyone helps to bring together these two men and their back-and-forth struggle that we each contain within us, which makes this film more than simply entertaining. It is important for us all.
There was one thing about this film I didn't enjoy. I felt that the transitions between the fantasy of the set of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” and real life wasn’t necessary. I have always believed that tricks like this must add some value to the storytelling, but with the exception of dream sequences, they do not. It is the only decision I didn’t appreciate by the director, Marielle Heller, whose direction of Melissa McCarthy in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” which tells the true story of Lee Israel’s forgery of famous people’s letters in order to survive a dying writing career, was also flawless. Sticking to real-life narratives based on fact but calling for nuanced reasoning to take viewers behind the scenes is her gift to cinema.
Behind the Scenes
The film cost approximately $25,000,000 to make. I wonder how much of that went to Hanks.
This is the eleventh film in which Hanks plays a historical figure.
The puppet makers for “Sesame Street” fabricated the Rogers’ puppets used in the film. Sacrilege?
Rhys and Hanks previously worked together on the film “The Post.” My favorite quote: “If you can mention it, you can manage it.” Lesson: Speak the unspeakable aloud.