In the promotional spot for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, reporter Lloyd Vogel’s wife, Andrea (This is Us’ Susan Kelechi Watson) says, “Lloyd, please don’t ruin my childhood.” I approached this new release with the same hesitance. I grew up among the first generation of children who enjoyed Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, a PBS production of Pittsburgh’s WQED, and the television classic helped shape my childhood. However, director Marielle Heller creates a cinematic gift at a time and with a message that benefits us all.
Heller’s greatest task may not have been telling the story of actual writer Tom Junod and the relationship he shared with Fred Rogers during the time of a 1998 profile on heroes. Instead, it was taking a cinematic force of nature like Tom Hanks and easing him to embody the quiet and intentional calmness of Fred Rogers. That calmness, that intention, permeates the whole film and create a Zen-like, albeit cathartic, viewing experience. When is the last time you spent two hours being intentionally quiet and celebrating the good in the world? We should all do it more often.
As Lloyd Vogel, Matthew Rhys is in some ways all of us – busy, cynical, and self-absorbed. When an Esquire Magazine editor, played by an underutilized Christine Lahti, assigns hard-hitting investigative journalist Vogel to profile Mr. Rogers for a compendium on heroes, Vogel reacts as expected, with a jaded look at a children’s television host. What he experiences through the interview process is instead transformative.
During this time of anger and discord, the simple lessons of Fred Rogers are a sincere primer in how we should approach life and each other. Particularly touching is the surprising and unconditional love Rogers shows to Vogel’s father, played nearly perfectly by Chris Cooper, who virtually disappears into the role of ne’er do well father who is seeking redemption. We should all love this freely, honestly and openly and cherish those who do.
In lesser hands, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood could have been a saccharine overload, intolerably sweet and treacly. However, in Heller’s nuanced direction, the film is more of a homey confection, like the perfect oatmeal cookie. We promise, you’ll be better off for enjoying this sweet treat. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood opens this Friday, November 22 nationwide, and will most assuredly run successfully right into awards season.