A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (PG)
This is perhaps the most beautifully and carefully crafted movie of the year so far. Directed at the same pace as Mr. Rogers spoke—slowly and clearly—the movie never seems to drag. It gives you, as the show gave children, time to think and absorb what you are hearing and feeling.
And feeling is what this film is all about and what it causes in the audience. There are so many throat-tightening moments in this film that one loses count. It seems we are almost always on the verge of a tear or two.
The emotions in the audience are not drawn cheaply, with melodrama, but with a series of truths that we all can recognize and relate to, those concerning love, individuality, creativity, independence, honesty, hatred—they all touch us one way or another. The film also reminds us either of our childhood or, in my case, parenthood, in which we watched and absorbed Mr. Rogers with our children.
The story is built beautifully on a story written for Esquire magazine by Tom Junod, altered in the film to Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). Vogel had issues with his absent father (Chris Cooper) but hid them until, unbeknownst to Vogel, Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) researched him before their interview. Rogers takes Vogel under his wing, trying to bring the two together before Jerry Vogel (the father) dies. Through gentle questions and example, Rogers leads Vogel back to forgiveness.
The questions and examples apply to all of us as well, further resonating with the audience. Vogel is aided in his “recovery” by his wife, Andrea, brilliantly played by “This Is Us” star Susan Kalechi Watson.
Along the way, associates of Rogers share observations on his work habits and his character—a very effective way of deepening the story. “He’s just about the most gentle man I’ve ever met,” observes one. Asides and knowing smiles are the comments from Bill Isler (Enrico Colantoni), Rogers’ longtime producer.
There are throat-tightening scenes, as I mentioned earlier, and the most unlikely, though it is probably true, is a scene on a New York subway where a mixed-race and mixed-age crowd sings the Rogers theme song to him, to his great delight. Another striking scene is Rogers and his wife, Joanne (Maryann Plunkett), playing a serious two-piano duet in their living room. A late scene in which Rogers shows up at Jerry’s house to visit the dying man is a killer—and all this without banging, shooting, explosions or special effects.
It is almost impossible to believe a man in the late 20th century could have been so poised, so focused on children, so kind and so understanding of humankind, but it is apparently true. Joanne smilingly reminds Lloyd, “He does have a temper!” but it is hard to believe.
The taste and humanity that this film embraces are too much absent in our world, as are the honest feelings that it engenders. Put it on your “Gifts to Self” list for the holidays and don’t be ashamed to see it more than once.