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A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood review
Based on the true story of a real-life friendship between TV host Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod.

Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: Marielle Heller

Starring: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper, Christine Lahti

a beautiful day in the neighbourhood poster

Marielle Heller can't be commended enough for unlocking the key to making a great Mister Rogers feature pic, especially after the legendary creator of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was comprehensively profiled for Morgan Neville's popularly and critically acclaimed documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?

For Heller, the key to avoiding embellishing her subject's life and making a film that doesn't have any conflict at the centre - Fred Rogers is maybe the only celebrity in recorded history who doesn't have so much as a bone in his closet - is to make it deeply personal from a perspective outside of the subject's own. We explore Rogers' persona through Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who's based on Tom Junod, a cynical journalist who was assigned to profile the icon for Esquire and found himself greatly affected by the encounter in the best way possible. The arc of positive self-reflection is hardly fresh - it even kind of happened to Emma Thompson's Ms Travers when Tom Hanks played Walt Disney in Saving Mr Banks - but it's rarely done with such grace, wit and nuance as here.

a beautiful day in the neighbourhood review

Lloyd, angry with his father Jerry (played by the mighty Chris Cooper) following his mother's death, only finds solace at home with his newborn child and wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson). The "hokey kid's show host" is a fairly foreign entity to him but Andrea loves Mister Rogers and tells her partner, "don't hurt my childhood" after he agrees to do the piece. Lloyd's editor Ellen (Christine Lahti) tells him that Fred Rogers is the only subject who's agreed to do an interview with Lloyd for the magazine's series of celebrity heroes, due to Lloyd's reputation as short-tempered and aggressive.

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Rhys' character, despite his little acquaintance with Mister Rogers' work, is far from a mere surrogate for the audience. I hope that Heller doesn't choose to do an ensemble film anytime soon because, as demonstrated in her previous films The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Can You Ever Forgive Me?, she's powerful at wielding a few core characters to a great extent, fleshing each of them out with such personality and agency that may not be afforded if there were too many characters to take care of.

a beautiful day in the neighbourhood review

With UK/ROI audiences, the inherent emotional attachment to the character may not be there, and we might even be skeptical considering the horrible bastards that were Rogers' British contemporaries. But the casting of the famously nice Tom Hanks is perfect for us, not only for the actor's globally renowned reputation but for his supreme talents as he imbues his take on Fred Rogers with sensitivity above sainthood. Hanks naturally sympathises with the viewpoint that putting people on a pedestal risks dehumanisation, so there's some meta-reading to be done in his humble teachings that we all make mistakes. Our capacity for healing and forgiveness is far greater. It certainly helped me forgive Hanks for The Circle, and I'm rooting for his deeply magnanimous performance here to receive the credit it deserves this awards season.

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Awards aren't the point of this biopic, though, for Heller is far too creative to phone it in while her star performs to his best. In addition to her aforementioned excellent character work, she successfully experiments with a fresher storytelling framework, beginning with a stunning opening sequence that blurs the line between a recreation of Mister Rogers Neighborhood and a metatextual introduction to the theme of her film. She utilises the toy world from the TV show's set for establishing shots to blur the lines further, leading to a wonderfully heartfelt, therapeutic scene wherein Vogel finds himself dreaming inside of the toys with Rogers' fictional puppets responding to his existentialism.

a beautiful day in the neighbourhood review

Perhaps the greatest moment of her indistinct merger of third-person biography and tête-à-tête communication with the audience is a beautiful moment for a minute's silence. It unfolds so effortlessly that writing about it can't accurately reflect the deeply personal reaction you have to it. Whether you know a little or a lot about Mister Rogers, there's nothing that will prepare you for the emotional experience in this neighbourhood, as the director makes it feel like catharsis made just for you, getting you to consider your own relationships with the people in your life and the strength of your kindness.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is on Netflix UK/ROI now.