Hello, Neighbor: A Review of ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

I grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Many of you probably did the same. To many children growing up in the United States–and now, thanks to the internet, around the world–Mr. Rogers was a friend who taught us some very important life lessons. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood seeks to show us that everyone–even us grown-ups–can benefit from the life lessons of Mr. Rogers in a world as divided as the one in which we currently live. Spoilers will be marked by **. 

“ALL OF US, AT SOME TIME OR OTHER, NEED HELP. WHETHER WE’RE GIVING OR RECEIVING HELP, EACH ONE OF US HAS SOMETHING VALUABLE TO BRING TO THIS WORLD. THAT’S ONE OF THE THINGS THAT CONNECTS US AS NEIGHBORS—IN OUR OWN WAY, EACH ONE OF US IS A GIVER AND A RECEIVER.” -Fred Rogers

The film opens with a scene very familiar to us: Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) entering the living room set of his television show, changing his shoes, putting on his cardigan, and inviting us to look at some pictures. This is the framing device used throughout the entire film, and Mr. Rogers invites us to take a closer look at his friend, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys).

** Lloyd is a man who struggles to overcome his past. He is a successful journalist, married, with an infant son. Lloyd’s tumultuous relationship with his father comes to a head at his sister’s wedding, which ends in a physical altercation between his father and him. This, of course, is before he assigned to write a profile on Fred Rogers, beloved children’s television host.

** Although Lloyd starts out as a skeptic–who doesn’t seem to think very highly of humankind as a whole–as he learns more about Mr. Rogers, he, like the children whom Fred speaks to through his television platform, learns an important lesson about dealing with complex emotions: it’s okay to talk about feelings, says Mr. Rogers, and it’s also okay to not talk about feelings, but these feelings need to be addressed. The final act of the film shows us the culmination of Lloyd’s emotional journey–no specific details here because spoilers–and the last scenes in the film demonstrate that Mr. Rogers’ life of compassion, kindness, and forgiveness truly made a difference in the world.

Framing the film as an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood transports the audience back to childhood. The cinematography flits back-and-forth between crystal-clear high definition and the outdated, grainy, slightly-yellowed camera work that public television (which Mr. Rogers staunchly defended to Congress) used to favor. Instead of stock footage of New York City skylines, models and miniatures indicate changing locations and travel. All of the technical aspects of the film are designed to make us feel like we are in the Neighborhood, and that Mr. Rogers really is our neighbor. Yet it is Tom Hanks’ (lovingly referred to by many as ‘America’s Dad’) performance as Mr. Rogers that truly gives life to the film. His mannerisms, way of speaking, and gentle approach to the story made me at times forget that I was not watching the real Fred Rogers. There is a lot of heart in Hanks’ role, and he delivers it with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, just as the real Fred Rogers would have.

While this film is based on a true story, (you can read the original article that inspired the film here) Lloyd Vogel is not Tom Junod, the real-life author of the Esquire article. While Lloyd struggles with accepting Mr. Rogers’ worldview, Tom Junod was much more receptive. The truth is, that even though Lloyd’s narrative is mostly fictionalized and not based in fact, it nonetheless rings true.

The true magic of Mr. Rogers was not his puppets or his earnest charm, but in that he could make anyone feel like a neighbor. The most tender moment in the film is, in fact, a true moment from his life, in which a subway car full of strangers of varying age, race, political party, religion, etc. sing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and instantly become neighbors.

Fred Rogers passed away from stomach cancer in 2003, and though it has been nearly twenty years since his passing, the lessons that he passed down through a life well-lived are more important than ever, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood sends a message that loving and accepting people as they are is not easy, but if you work at it every day like Mr. Rogers, you can live in a world where the scary things we don’t want to talk about–death, depression, and anger–are not so scary because we will have neighbors beside us instead of strangers.

“The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile.” – Fred Rogers

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is now playing in U.S. cinemas. 

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