On the face of it, director Marielle Heller’s exhilaratingly impolite indie resume doesn’t make her an intuitive fit for a movie about the nicest man in the world — let alone a big studio picture starring nice Tom Hanks.
Heller’s 2015 feature debut, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, was voiced by a sorry-not-sorry young woman who initiates an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. In her second, last year’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Heller cast the beloved Melissa McCarthy as the robustly unlikable real-life literary forger Lee Israel. Next to Mister Rogers — in the eyes of many, a saint and a children’s hero — these two seem not to stack up.
Heller is not much into saints, but she delights in ill-fitting outliers. And Fred Rogers, in his slow and soft-voiced way, was a willing anachronism to the brash new late-sixties world that greeted the arrival on PBS of his earnestly old-fangled children’s television show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Rogers’ real-life buddy, journalist Tom Junod (Matthew Rhys plays Junod’s cinematic stand-in “Lloyd Vogel” in Heller’s film) lovingly described the kid-show-host as “a rather peculiar man.”
So he was, and how much more so he seems now, in today’s quarrelsome noise. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister and theologian whose on-set uniform was a comfy cardigan, tie, and sneakers. Turned off by the shrieking pie-in-the face cartoons that were standard children’s television fare, he slowed the pace way down, listened to children’s darkest fears and anxieties without wishing them away, and showed them how to manage those fears. The roots of his empathy in his own troubled childhood were beautifully told in Morgan Neville’s lovely 2018 documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which became the top-grossing biographical documentary ever.
A Beautiful Day is not that story; it’s not really Fred’s story at all. The movie is a kind of procedural that shows how Rogers worked — persnickety and willfully distractible, he drove his adoring crew round the bend — on and off the set the set of his show, in this case to free an unhappy man of an enormous psychological burden he’d carried all his life. Inspired by Junod’s 1998 Esquire cover, the film turns on the unexpected friendship that grew between the two men out of an assignment that the hard-hitting news reporter was forced into by his hard-nosed editor. (Were he alive today, I’m sure Fred would join me in saying: So nice to see you again, Christine Lahti!). Sensitively played by Rhys (The Americans), Lloyd is a glum and grumpy fellow despite his glitzy job and new fatherhood with a supportive wife (Susan Kelechi Watson).
Within minutes of their first phone call, Rogers (Tom Hanks) senses that Lloyd is in unresolved emotional trouble. The movie’s running joke, and its tenderly serious point, is Fred’s gently firm switch of the spotlight back on his resistant interlocutor, reframing the questions Lloyd is wrongly asking. Heller sprinkles the action with realist scenes of Lloyd’s current struggles with his absentee father (Chris Cooper), a feckless drunk trying ham-fistedly to make amends. But the film is also a fantasy, and in lesser hands than Heller’s, the visual devices that carry us through A Beautiful Day — toy-filled miniature models of The Neighborhood and the cities both men travel through — might register as unbearably coy.
In fact the sets feel organic to Rogers’ central belief that in order to become fully functioning adults, everyone — especially the suffering children that he and Lloyd once were — should remember what it felt like to be a child. Lloyd, who has built an impregnable fort around his pain and rage toward his father, finds himself imaginatively folded into the puppet-littered sets Rogers has built for his younger audience. Some of this is played for laughs, others to warm the heart. But lest you think Heller gilds the lily, Junod’s article is there to verify some of the movie’s seemingly improbable moments, among them a scene in which Fred is serenaded with one of his own songs by passengers in his subway car. Even if you think Rogers’ psychological model is simplistic, you can’t help but climb aboard.
Operating with a shrewd mix of imitation and interpretation, Hanks deepens Fred Rogers from a man-child with a prankish sense of humor into a healer whose struggles with his own demons (as an overweight child he was bullied and called “Fat Freddie”) have led him to empathize with, as Lloyd puts it, “broken people like me.” Hanks’s sincere performance argues for a heartening lack of space between Rogers’ public and private personas, between himself and his puppets. He understood the darkness in children’s lives and gave them — and all the damaged Lloyds and Freds of this world — a way to grow into adults who understand that being good is endlessly renewable hard work. Welcome to a much-needed neighborhood.