A friend once told me his theory that any exchange between two people will often take one of two modes: interview or therapy. The interview type is more common, consisting of lightweight, getting-to-know-you questions you’d trade at a cocktail party or coffee meeting. It takes time for a pair of conversationalists to reach therapy stage, and when a pair does fall into it prematurely — say, on an exceptionally intimate first date — it’s always a happy surprise. A sign you’ve found someone special.
There’s a way of viewing A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood as proof of this rule. It’s a movie about a magazine interview that turns into a lesson in empathy, making it a heart-warmer and well-timed balm with a homespun quality that’s hugely endearing.
The movie, expertly directed by Marielle Heller, is on one level a portrait of Mr. Rogers, the beloved children’s show host. It’s framed, in that age-old trope, by an interview with a journalist — in this case, an embittered Esquire reporter named Lloyd Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys. (The story was inspired by a real-life 1998 profile of Mr. Rogers penned by Esquire writer Tom Junod.) In the film, Lloyd takes a series of meetings with Mr. Rogers in which he probes — and to an extent impugns — his interview subject’s preternatural patience and virtue. He’s a skeptic and a cynic, serving as both a foil for Mr. Rogers and an extension of a sour-grapes 2019 audience.
But the interview, and the movie, slowly turn. As Mr. Rogers breaks down Lloyd’s walls, the film becomes more like cinematic therapy — which is to say, more like an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The film is even bookended with Mr. Rogers, played by Tom Hanks, acting out a fake episode of the show in which he tells us about his friend Lloyd, a man who’s “having a hard time forgiving.” Sometimes, Mr. Rogers explains, it’s even more difficult to forgive a person we love.
This person turns out to be Lloyd’s father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), a deadbeat and alcoholic attempting to reconcile with Lloyd after many years estranged. The two get into a fistfight upon their initial reunion, compelling Lloyd to wear a black eye to his first meeting with Mr. Rogers. Lloyd also has a newborn baby, a tiny thing he’s only just figuring out how to be responsible for and doesn’t want his dad anywhere near. It’s serendipity that his profile assignment should occur right then: Lloyd could clearly use some help figuring out how to be caring father, and what to do with the mad that he feels in the meantime.
Heller’s third feature, Beautiful Day establishes her niche: stories about real people and their messy eccentricities. Her 2015 debut The Diary of a Teenage Girl was an electrifying coming-of-age based on a cartoonist’s semi-autobiographical graphic novel; her follow-up came last year with the awards-friendly Can You Ever Forgive Me? about the late literary forger and Manhattan crank Lee Israel. Both of those earlier films center on a self-diagnosed odd duck, an outsider searching for a way to express herself in the world. Lloyd too positions himself on the outside; an early scene finds him addressing a roomful of fancy writers as his “fellow misfits” who get to “change a broken world with our words.” But in the end, it’s Mr. Rogers who feels like the movie’s real oddity, a cipher who’s always our neighbor but never our friend.
The best way to access Mr. Rogers, the movie seems to say, is through his creativity. Similar to Diary, in which Heller embellishes the screen with cartoons and illustration, Beautiful Day frequently interweaves shots of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, reminding us that charm and fancy aren’t incompatible with the gritty world Lloyd inhabits. Traversing the city with Mr. Rogers, in fact, is rather like entering a fantasy world: His presence might inspire a bustling restaurant to grow silent for a full minute, or a subway full of strangers to burst into song. Lloyd’s character arc, in which these moments serve as beats, is highly legible: from spite to empathy, rage to forgiveness. Mr. Rogers is more complex — and Heller wisely declines to diagnose or distill him. Instead, she makes him human. He may be the superman of intent listening, but he isn’t untouchable, and we shouldn’t treat him that way.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is for kids, obviously. But its lessons and sincerity don’t have to be, and the brilliance of Beautiful Day is how it infuses Mr. Rogers’ heuristic into a movie that still feels tasteful and adult. This is trickier than it sounds, and few could pull it off with as much grace and emotional intelligence as Heller. Last year, as Can You Ever Forgive Me? built up awards momentum, somewhere down the line the conversation served away from Heller, focusing instead on the fantastic dual performances from Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy. To look past Heller this time around would be a great disservice. The insight she delivers through her work is gentle rather than jaw-dropping, but it’s still boldly therapeutic — not unlike a certain extraordinary-ordinary neighbor.
Image courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.