If the structure of the film is familiar, Heller innovates within that structure by constructing her film as an episode of Rogers’ show. Hanks’ Rogers is the first character onscreen, entering his iconic set, changing shoes, and telling his audience about his friend Lloyd. Heller also remembers the best parts of Rogers’ show, particularly the how-stuff-is-made segments, here illustrated by magazine printing and assemblage. This framework suggests pat endings and tidy bows, as is typical of children’s programming, but Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood wasn’t a typical show. Not only is the film resistant to pop-psychologizing and easy catharsis, it extends that humanizing courtesy to the inhuman-seeming man near its center. Rogers is shown to be a strange man, given to speaking to adults in exactly the same way he speaks to children, and while this might be a genuine expression of empathy and love on his part, it is unquestionably off-putting and makes Rogers into an oft-frustrating presence. He is also shown to be a person who has to work to be as open as he is, demonstrated best in the film’s final shot. Heller ensures that there’s more to her film than what’s expected of this kind of pseudo-biopic, and then pivots again, making what’s familiar feel fresh.
In direct comparison to Neville’s documentary, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood repeats certain revelations and characterizations, like Rogers’ painful and lonely childhood and his difficulties in raising his own children. The film also reiterates Rogers’ specific superpower of endearing himself to children by knowing exactly how their kid brains are working, a skill that is always magical to see demonstrated. What separates the two films are the Vogels. It’s easy to imagine the movie made in this fashion where the famous subject thoroughly outshines their counterpart i.e. Julie and Julia, but that’s not the case here. Rhys, Cooper, and Watson enliven well-constructed characters with a great deal of humanity, as is appropriate for a film about a man who saw the depth of feeling in everyone he encountered. The man plagued with father issues isn’t new ground, but Rhys infuses Lloyd with a precarious fury that erupts in visceral outbursts. An early wedding he and Andrea attend where Jerry is also present can only end in disaster, but Rhys believably makes it so much worse than one thinks it’s going to go. Andrea is at first the patient wife, but Watson puts an unspoken limit on how much she can indulge her husband’s festering mental wounds if he isn’t going to deal with them. Jerry is recognizable as an asshole, and an asshole who is trying as hard as he can to be better. His attempts at reconciliation are earnest but are riddled with missteps. The viewer can easily put a progression on his personal growth, imagining a time when he was oblivious to the feelings of others as compared to the present when he’s clumsily working out an atrophied emotional muscle. It would’ve been easy for Heller and the writers to acknowledge that Hanks-as-Rogers is the main draw and shunt these characters to the back burner, but they are just as considered as Rogers, and the film has no dead spots because of it.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood hits its greatest resonances when it returns to Rogers’ peculiar, elemental magic. The film has no patience for cynicism, a trait it marks as small-minded and cruel. It puts Rogers’ themes through the medium of Lloyd and demonstrates how they aren’t dismissible as children’s TV pablum, the kind of thing that pushed Rogers into his business in the first place. Lloyd does need to name his anger and its source, and then question its purpose and its value. What good is created by holding onto it? Is his stubbornness making him a better writer, husband, or father? Heller’s formal daring is most exemplified in a fourth-wall breaking scene of magical realism where Rogers is meeting with Lloyd in a diner and transposes a request to him that he surely made on his show. He asks Lloyd to sit quietly and think about all the people in his life who ‘loved him into being.’ The film not only lets this minute of silence play out, but the diner quiets with Lloyd as they do the same, only for Hanks to look directly into the camera and implicitly ask the viewer to do it, too. Rogers, as personified by Hanks, can break down the walls of anyone, and so can Heller’s delicate, beautiful film. A-