A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is the cinematic hug you need this new year

We all remember our favourite childhood TV shows. They have a special and irreplaceable place in our hearts. For many generations of kids in the US, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was that show. Presented by Fred Rogers, this simple, engaging and educational program ran from 1968 to 2001 often using songs and stories to help children deal with their feelings and emotions. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (so-called after the program’s famous title song) sees Tom Hanks don the Mister Rogers red jersey in an enjoyable and ultimately heartwarming tale of self-discovery and forgiveness.

Inspired by the 1998 Esquire article “Can You Say … Hero?” by Tom Junod, it’s not your typical biopic if that’s what you’re expecting. In fact, Hanks’ Rogers is the supporting character leaving much of the presenter’s life unexplored. 

The film begins with Hanks perfectly imitating Rogers for the opening of an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and introduces the audience to his friend –  journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). Director Marielle Heller then thrusts us into the reality of Vogel’s life; he’s a new dad who’s struggling to deal with and forgive the transgressions of his own father.

The sceptical journo is given an assignment to interview Fred Rogers for a magazine profile. Vogel wants to be writing hard-hitting exposés, not a ‘puff piece’ as he calls it, but he reluctantly agrees and travels to meet the TV icon on a mission to uncover the truth about this seemingly squeaky clean personality. Following their first meeting, Vogel’s not convinced that someone could really be this perfect so he pursues Rogers further. But, their continued meetings and conversations end up unravelling more from his own life rather than Mister Rogers’.

This wonderful film has a good dollop of nostalgia, is full of heart and leaves you with the message to remember that what it was like to be a child and focus on what’s really important in life – love, family and friendship. It’s a much-needed reminder of the lessons of kindness, acceptance and forgiveness we’re taught in childhood that are somehow eroded as we grow older.

The excellent script by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster cleverly weaves humour, pain and intrigue into the plot with brilliant character development for all on-screen. The result is interactions that feel authentic and emotionally raw.

The unexpected focus on Matthew Rhys’ character rather than the kids’ TV star meant that Heller could play around with the fantasy of TV land and the reality of Vogel facing his personal demons. Rhys is wonderful as the cynical journalist and his turns with Hanks are both touching and funny. Hanks is faultless as the saintly Fred Rogers. He teases us with subtle glimpses into this icon, adding depth to his performance. Susan Kelechi Watson’s strong portrayal of Vogel’s wife enabled for natural dialogue and chemistry between the two actors and Chris Cooper also delivered a great supporting performance as Vogel’s dad seeking redemption. 

Ultimately,  A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a father-son tale told beautifully while Tom Hanks expertly brings Rogers to life on the big-screen producing some real movie magic. It’s an emotional film without being too draining and I too felt comforted by Mister Rogers’ calm and caring demeanour. I’ve since watched a few episodes of his show on YouTube with my son and I can confirm his expertise in child whispering. 

Give yourself a warm cinematic hug and escape to the charming A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood out in cinemas now.

Reviewed by Ingrid Grenar.

4.5 stars