Review by Sean Boelman
Inspired by an Esquire profile written by journalist Tom Junod, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a new drama cashing in on nostalgia for the children’s television show host Fred Rogers. Although those looking to learn more about the entertainer’s life may be unsatisfied, director Marielle Heller delivers an experience that captures what Rogers stood for more perfectly than any biopic ever could.
The film follows a cynical journalist as he is assigned to write a profile on Rogers, only to find himself and his outlook on life affected in ways he never would have expected. The script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster is frequently unorthodox and unafraid to subvert the expectations of the audience, giving the movie a very refreshing feel.
If the film does commit one sin, it is that it sometimes leans a bit too heavily on the sentimentality. The best moments are when the script really emphasizes the idea of childhood fantasy and how Mister Rogers had the almost magical ability to let people relive that feeling. Other scenes, in which the movie feels like it is trying to be a tear-jerker, are effective, but also much more conventional and lack the infectious sense of wonder.
Audiences will surely be wiping their tears away many times over the course of the film, some earned and some unearned. Many of Rogers’s speeches contain something so heartwarming and honest that viewers will be in awe of how well Heller and crew were able to capture his spirit on screen. Although some of the best scenes were already shown in the trailers, they will still be quite impactful when shown within the greater context of the story.
One of the most intriguing things about this movie is that it does not present Rogers as the protagonist, but rather, as a mythic-like guide who leads the protagonist on his journey of self-realization. The protagonist’s arc, while relatively obvious from the onset of the film, is extremely compelling, taking the beats of an average redemption arc and somehow making them feel even more heartfelt.
Matthew Rhys is phenomenal as the journalist whose heart must be warmed over the course of the movie. Despite the fact that audiences won’t know much about this character going in and will likely care more about seeing Mister Rogers, Rhys manages to elevate the material even further, making the character super sympathetic. Of course, as one would expect, Tom Hanks’s turn as the minister-turned-performer is scene-stealing, capturing all of the iconic mannerisms to a pitch-perfect level of detail.
Visually, Heller’s style that was evident in her previous two films carries over in a way that is even more refined. Small but complex touches to the way in which the movie is structured, such as transitions taking the form of a crane through a miniaturized neighborhood, really help absorb the audience into the world of the film. Additionally, the recreations of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, thanks to both Hanks’s performance and Heller’s direction, are absolutely spot-on.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood may not be what audiences expect, but it is what they have always wanted to have. Encouraging viewers to make the most of their beautiful day, this is the type of uplifting crowd-pleaser that Rogers would have been proud to see.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood opens in theaters on November 22.