What can you say about a film which begins with Tom Hanks singing: Its a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor; Would you be mine? Could you be mine? & Please wont you be my neighbor? The song sets your cynicism to rest and makes your spirits soar, as does the film itself.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood has Hanks playing Fred Rogers, the much-loved host of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, a show that held young America in thrall late 60s onwards (running from 1968 to 2001). The film kicks off just the way each episode of the show would begin, with Rogers singing while walking on the set, taking off his jacket and getting into a sweater, taking off his shoes and putting on the sneakers. He would go on to talk about dark, difficult topics like death, war, divorce with his primary audience: children just back home from school.
Rogers was the subject for Wont You Be My Neighbor?, Morgan Nevilles documentary that came out in 2018. Hellers film, however, is inspired from Can You Say & Hero? Tom Junods 1998 article in Esquire. Its about the transformational impact of Rogers on the life of a fictionalised Junod, the cynical journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who is assigned to profile the iconic TV host. The kind of puff piece he doesnt want to do. In the course of their interaction, how Rogers helps him find peace with his estranged father Jerry (Chris Cooper), who had abandoned the family when Lloyd was a child forms the crux of the film.
It is an oft-repeated tale of callousness, guilt, remorse, forgiveness and reconciliation, of facing up to unresolved fears and sorrows and putting the ghosts of the past to rest. The inventiveness is in Hellers telling, how she breaks down and reconstructs space and time in her narrative rather than lay it out linear and straight. The way she constantly moves and shifts between the TV set of the Neighborhood of Make Believe (what the show is called in the film) and Lloyds reality and uses not just the music, format, visuals, characters and guests but also the actual props and puppets of the show. She makes us enter the life of Lloyd with Rogers through the TV show and also brings him on to the set to turn the show into a space for therapy, not just for Lloyd, but a mass healing of sorts for several broken souls like him.
Its a two-pronged thing. On one hand, Lloyd finds his own life turning upside down, for the better through the intervention of Rogers. On the other, through the flipping of his life one gets to see and understand Rogers philosophy and comprehend his way of life. He is himself not quite a Living Saint, is far from perfect and bringing up two of his own sons may not quite have been the ideal of parenthood as one may expect of him. There may also be an evangelical air about Rogers, but ultimately its not sermonising so much as warmth, empathy, simplicity that work. Lloyd might think that its writers who are changing the broken world with our words but its Rogers ability to draw him out, have a conversation with him and help him deal with the mad he feels that fixes Lloyd. They are a study in contrast. One a font of positivity, other doesnt care about humanity. Yet one is brave enough to unburden to the other, and the other willing to bear and help deal with it.
Its the trio of a measured Hanks (noone else could possibly have become the wholesome, all-American Rogers), a quietly distraught Rhys with his close-ups of lingering pain (perhaps the most under-appreciated performance this year) and the blusterous Cooper who are the heart and soul of the film.
There are many obvious truths here: how its hardest to forgive someone we love, how its most difficult to release someone close to us from the anger and hurt we are nursing against them, how no normal life is free of pain, and how good, bad, sad and glad have to co-exist.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood might make a certain demographic in America go nostalgic for its slice of lost childhood, but also manages to reach out to the world at large. Its about the universal capability of loving and also the essential need and longing for being loved. Its message of forgiveness and compassion cant be better understood than in these fractured, fissured times where narratives are being built on hatred and othering than togetherness and harmony.