A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood introduces the iconic figure through the eyes of Lloyd Vogel, an investigative journalist with Esquire magazine with a history of exposing the darkness of our world. Tasked with writing a mere 400 words for an issue about our ‘heroes’, Vogel begrudgingly accepts his assignment and begins to meet regularly with the children’s television icon. Rogers immediately takes a liking to Vogel, despite his reputation, and the two begin a friendship that changes Lloyd’s life forever.
Directed by Marielle Heller, Beautiful Day lives up to its name. Based on the true story of investigative reporter Tom Junod, Beautiful Day is a powerful journey that demonstrates the power that a live of love and kindness can have on a broken soul. Although one might be expecting a biopic about Mr. Rogers, this is a film that wisely avoids the trappings of the traditional structure (especially considering the popularity of last year’s doc, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) Instead, by taking this particular narrative framework, Heller allows the film to explore the impact that Rogers’ unpretentious yet profound worldview impacted the culture around him.
As Rogers, Hanks absolutely transports himself into the role. While he has built up a reputation of being Hollywood’s ‘nicest guy’ himself, his performance is simply remarkable. Adopting every mannerism, intonation and spiritual altruism, Hanks brings the iconic yet mysterious figure to life. (And, yes, he looks good in a sweater vest.) There has always remained a simplicity to Rogers’ approach that Hanks manages to capture with joyful enthusiasm. It is easily his most engaging role in two decades.
While there’s little doubt that this is an admirable portrait of Rogers and his impact, the film does not deify him. Despite being begged by those around him not to ‘ruin their childhood’ by revealing the dark secrets of Mr. Rogers to the world, Vogel nevertheless pulls no punches for the iconic performer, asking him about his personal burdens, family issues and more. In the process, Vogel discovers that, although Rogers remains somewhat of a mystery, their conversations reveal the imperfections of his humanity but still shows his deep love of others. A film like this becomes even more important when one considers that we live in a world where our childhood heroes are being exposed as frauds. In days when it feels like a new scandal is coming to light every day, Beautiful Day is a reminder that there are still imperfect people that are worthy of highlighting for their impact on others.
Though overburdened and flawed himself, Rogers continues to fight for the hearts and souls of the broken around him through his ‘simple’ message of love and acceptance. In his conversations with Vogel, Rogers simply listens with empathy and calls Lloyd to choose forgiveness and grace in the face of overwhelming hurt and anger. (“Let’s take a moment of silence and think about all the people who loved us to where we are,” Rogers asks in one particularly poignant moment.) For Rogers, the light of hope stems from listening and love and he is unyielding in his invitation to point that out to others.
Earnest and engaging, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is truly a ray of sunlight in a world looking for spiritual champions. Though Rogers would never want to be called a hero, his life of love, hope and unrelenting grace is a beacon, not just for Vogel (or the real life Junod) but for everyone within his circle of influence.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is currently playing at the Toronto International Film Festival. For more screenings, click here.