Marielle Heller made waves last year with the Melissa McCarthy feature Can You Ever Forgive Me? It was a film that was brazenly selfish, amusingly so, with a cast of misanthropes and misfits failing to see the world around them due to their own deficiencies. Her follow-up, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is oddly enough quite similar yet utterly different. While this story is about people that cannot see things around them, it might just be us, the audience, that makes something out to be better than it is, not the imperfect messes that Heller depicts in her movies.
Telling the true story of the friendship that developed between writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) and children’s television personality Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). When Vogel is assigned a piece profiling the presenter he sees it as beneath him, but as he sees behind the curtain of this beloved individuals world he can’t quite square away the man with the very different world he lives in. The most surprising part of all to Lloyd might just be that he is just as normal as the rest of us.
Hidden beneath this story of understanding, behind the cutesy scene transitions that feel ripped straight from a kids show and the bright colourful lights of imagination is a film all about inner rage. For both Fred and Lloyd are seemingly put together people, ones capable of putting up one hell of a facade, much like the walls that Fred hides behind as he presents his puppets and his other side to the world. Heller breaks them down slowly but reminds us that we always have the ruins of boundaries we put up and for these two, vastly different people, that comes out through their oftentimes mistakable anger.
Despite the deep-seated tension that flows throughout Heller has written a love letter to all sorts of parents, the good ones and the ones that tried their best. The films best moments arise when Lloyd is struggling with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper), as Rhys lets the bottled up anguish and fury loose, the few loud moments in a film full of repression and restraint. In fact the contrast between this and how Fred vents his frustrations bonds these two more than the intermittent conversations that span this unconventional biopic. Hanks, while more of a supporting player here is delightfully introspective, a wealth of intelligence and grace hiding a resentment for the fame that effects his life but also makes it whole.
This Fred Roger’s is constantly learning, trying to better himself. The best part, however, is that he, like us, is constantly failing. The idolised way of looking at celebrity here is stripped back. Hanks and Heller seem intent to deconstruct a saint and present a man. One who can empathise instead of sympathising because he has been through it too.
There are times the inventive but challenging ways in which Heller conveys her message convolute a story that cries out for more time, more life in a world that feels almost hallucinatory, a dream of an ideal future, not an actual one. Lloyd’s ‘recovery’ from childhood trauma feels like the ending of an episode of Rogers’ show, a quick and easy fix to a problem years in the making. While cathartic, it can seem oddly trivial. The notion of a helping hand to fix woes and calm minds is one that Rogers instilled but here it seems too helpful, a cure-all instead of a helpful nudge.
While playful in its execution and inquisitive in how it delves into the minds of its characters, it manages to inject some humility into them but never into the world around them. Everything here feels a little too rosy, a world that functions if you see it as a lesson, one aimed at a hopeful youth, but Heller doesn’t point her camera towards the darker elements, the ones for the cynics and for a film about one, it seems a little too perky because of it.