It doesn’t take long for A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood to make its first use of its most powerful recurring technique – Tom Hanks looking you dead in the face and telling you that you matter. It’s comforting and soothing, though tinged with just a little strangeness that keeps you on your toes, and it’s this balance that Marielle Heller’s film is always trying to tap in to. Never desiring to just be a simple biopic, it’s a stylish and moving family-friendly message movie that will resonate regardless of how unfamiliar you may be with Mister Rogers.
Though largely unknown in the UK, Fred Rogers (Hanks) was one of America’s most enduring celebrities, entertaining generations of children with life lessons and careworn puppets across multiple decades. Inspired by an Esquire article, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood follows journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) – a fictionalised version of the article’s actual writer Tom Junod – who initially bridles at his soft touch assignment to interview Rogers, before seeing his life changed by Rogers’s virtues. It’s a smart move to keep Rogers off to one side – there’s very little drama to be found in a man who wilfully practised decency and goodness every day of his life – and Hanks is used the perfect amount.
It’s a brilliant bit of casting, Hollywood’s fatherly good guy a spiritual match for Rogers, who occupied a similar place in America’s heart, and Hanks gives his best performance since Captain Phillips to bring the role to life. He makes his face a hypnotising sight, staring directly into your soul as he imparts wisdom to everyone he comes across. There’s something almost unnerving in his placid calm and the way it forces everyone in its presence to slow down, and Rhys’s more jittery energy is a great foil.
Hanks is wonderful throughout, but it’s Rhys who has to sell the sheer power of Mister Rogers’s life philosophies, and he does a great job, transforming not only in the scenes he shares with Hanks, but those at home with his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and their new baby, too. Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster’s script gives Lloyd some obvious ‘big change’ moments, but it allows him subtler tweaks too, and Rhys embraces this with understated style. There are plenty of laughs and even more heart in Neighbourhood, with lots of life-affirming scenes that fill your soul (though, unfortunately, the single strongest, most emotive moment – of Mister Rogers being sung to on a crowded train – has been spoiled in the trailers).
In his interactions with Rogers, Lloyd finds himself on the back foot, his questions for his subject soon transforming into questions about himself. Rogers’s spell of kindness and goodness is utterly beguiling, and, for the most part, the film pulls off the same trick, assuming that you will start from the same place of cynicism as Lloyd does before winning you over with patience and a tenacious good heart.
Heller proved herself a great director with last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me, and, with Neighbourhood, she continues her skilful use of performances and music while expanding into new, surreal styles. In keeping with the aesthetics of Rogers’s own show, establishing shots of cities and houses are done using miniatures, and Heller conjures that rarest of cinematic things – a dream sequence that actually feels like you’re dreaming, following an unconscious logic that is both compelling and disturbing. It’s these instincts towards spikiness that keep Neighbourhood from becoming hokey, helping it earn its more saccharine moments of Hanks-fuelled whimsy. How well British audiences respond to such unadulterated American sincerity remains to be seen, but this is a simply lovely family film that should be a big hit come its Christmas release.