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TIFF: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I am fiercely protective about Mister Rogers. So when I heard that there was a new biopic about him I was skeptical. When I heard Tom Hanks was portraying Mister Rogers in the film I was skeptical. When I arrived for the TIFF screening at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto, ticket in hand, I was still skeptical. In fact I was skeptical for the first half of the movie. Why was everyone laughing? Don’t laugh What if audiences don’t fully understand or appreciate who Mister Rogers truly was? It hit me half way through the film that to really know Mister Rogers, we need to know the affect he had on others. And that is exactly what this film delivered.

Directed by Marielle Heller, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood takes an unconventional route to tell the story of an extraordinary man. It’s loosely based on Tom Junod’s Esquire article from the late 1990s.

Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is an angry and bitter man. Like Junod, he writes for Esquire and is known for his particularly callous approach to writing profiles. No one wants to be interviewed by him except for Mister Rogers who takes a particular interest in Lloyd and sees an opportunity to help him. Lloyd has a difficult relationship with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) who abandoned the family when Lloyd’s mother was dying. Lloyd is unable to forgive and the two have a volatile relationship. When assigned to write a 400 word piece on Rogers, Lloyd gets more than he bargained for. As he enters Mister Rogers world he struggles to comprehend what makes Rogers tick. The two continue to meet under the guise of the article, which Lloyd eventually writes a much longer profile which becomes the cover piece for the magazine. But it’s through this project that Lloyd learns to reconcile with his dad, to let go of the anger and to find some happiness within himself.

Mister Rogers gets a supporting role in his own biopic and that’s just the way he would have wanted it. Heller and the team of writers craft a unique structure which is part dark comedy and built within the confines of a faux episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. We get (what I believe is) a recreation of the set, the famous intro (cardigan, shoes, song and all) and the closing theme song. There’s the photo board, a picture picture sequence (all about how magazines are made), a visit from Mr. McFeely, a trip to the neighborhood of Make-Believe complete with King Friday and Daniel the Tiger and interstitials show the neighborhood set miniatures and when Lloyd is traveling those sequences are told in similar miniatures. There are dream sequences including a nightmare one that happens on the set. We see the production team, Rogers’ trusted assistant Bill (Enrico Colantoni), Rogers’ wife Joanne (Maryann Plunkett) spends time with Lloyd.

My favorite scene in the film is when Rogers and Lloyd meet at a restaurant and Rogers asks him for one minute of silence and to imagine the people he loves most surrounding him. The real Mister Rogers did this often and believed in the power of silence. We get that one whole minute of silence and as the camera pans we see cameos from Joanne Rogers herself and several other people from his life. I would give anything to watch that one scene again right now.

Courtesy of TIFF

I worry about viewers who didn’t grow up with or appreciate Mister Rogers. I grew up in the ’80s and Rogers was a sort of father figure to me. My own father lacked Rogers’ gentle demeanor, kindness, and understanding nature. I sought that through Rogers. He had a profound affect on how I view myself (to like myself just the way I am), to not be afraid to deal with my emotions and to be kind to others. 

One scene worried me in particular. As Lloyd is grilling Rogers about his “burden” and how he deals with it, Rogers takes out Daniel the Tiger. Lloyd is obviously frustrated that Rogers is not answering his question. But those who KNOW a thing or two about Rogers knows that Daniel the Tiger WAS his way of dealing with that burden. If you don’t know anything about Rogers, doing a bit of research ahead of time will be essential.  A viewing of Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  before watching Heller’s film is all you’ll really need.

Courtesy of TIFF

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a touching tribute and will be a major contribution in keeping the memory of Mister Rogers, and his particular brand of kindness, alive. I started getting emotional from the very first scene and cried throughout. This film really got to me even if it took me more than an hour to appreciate what it was trying to do.

Tom Hanks delivers a solid performance as Mister Rogers and I wouldn’t be surprised if some award nominations come his way. He nails the nuances, the gestures, the slower pace of moving, Rogers’ somewhat awkward body language and even the voice is simply spot on. Chris Cooper’s performance as Jerry shouldn’t be overlooked either. 

Watch A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood but don’t forget to bring tissues.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as a gala presentation.

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