A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a movie for both lifelong fans and skeptics | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a movie for both lifelong fans and skeptics

Sony Pictures Entertainment
What’s smart about A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is that it’s built for both lifelong fans of Fred Rogers and his show as much as it’s built for non-believers. You either grew up watching and loving Fred Rogers on TV, carrying an even stronger admiration into adulthood, or, like me, you never watched or really even heard of Rogers growing up, and felt dissociated from the appeal.

This is how the film’s protagonist — who is not Fred Rogers — feels. In 1998, journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, who grew up in Wales and hadn’t heard of Rogers before the role) is a hardened magazine writer who takes pride in his investigative journalism, which has earned him a reputation as someone subjects want to avoid. In his personal life, he’s experiencing somewhat of a mental break, brought on by his struggle to find footing in new fatherhood and fresh conflicts with his estranged father. He’s distant to his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson, quietly good) because he doesn’t know how to discuss his feelings, which metabolize into anger.

Enter Rogers, who’s built a career talking about feelings on his public television show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood on WQED. When Lloyd's editor at Esquire assigns him a profile on Rogers for the magazine's issue on heroes, he scoffs at the idea, both because he "doesn't do" "puff pieces" and because he sees the guy as a hokey kids' show-host. (The film and Lloyd are loosely based on an article written by journalist Tom Junod for Esquire in 1998.) His editor seems to know that working on the story will have a positive influence on Lloyd, whose face is still wounded from a recent fistfight with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) at a family wedding.

The assignment brings Lloyd from New York to Pittsburgh to meet with Mr. Rogers, who in turn meets with Lloyd when he travels to New York. They go back and forth a few times, and the cityscape B-roll footage that is usually used to show geographic transitions in films, is replaced with cityscape footage of a tiny model city. Instead of the real Pittsburgh, it's a miniaturized city, with little cars crossing the Roberto Clemente Bridge and little model planes moving through the sky. It's a cute feature for Pittsburghers to fawn over, but it's also one of the creative features the film uses to liven up the structure of the story, which could have easily been blandly straightforward.
Much of the film is told through Lloyd's eyes, who suspects the radical kindness of Rogers' persona must be part of an act. He learns it's not part of an act when he interviews Rogers, who turns the interview on Lloyd by asking deeply personal questions about his father, his childhood, his pain. Lloyd pushes away when he realizes he's entered into something of a non-consensual therapy session, but returns when he finds he actually does need therapy. He has repeated nightmares of being trapped on the Mister Rogers set (children's puppets lend themselves well to terror), but his waking nightmare is Rogers’ ability seeing straight through him.

Neighborhood, directed by Marielle Heller, is not a biopic about Fred Rogers, but a demonstration of how his show and his teaching worked, using Lloyd as an example student. It even uses the format of the show to explain Lloyd's problems to the audience, like interspersing a clip on "How to Make a Magazine" that introduces Lloyd, but also literally explain how a magazine is made.

Part of what makes the film work is that Lloyd does prod Rogers with difficult questions, stumping him at times. He asks how Rogers handles the burden of constantly listening to other people's problems, and how his kids handled the pressure of having a saint-like father. For Lloyd, the burden of life explodes outward, creating problems in his work and personal life. For Rogers, the burden is what fuels his work to better the world. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood doesn't condescend to its audience by telling them one way to live is better. Instead, it tells us that there are no emotions so bad that they can't be dealt with in productive ways. In Mr. Rogers' neighborhood, and in Heller's too, all emotions are worth feeling.

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