A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood movie review: the importance of radical kindness (LFF 2019)

part of my Directed by Women series
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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

This wonder of a film wrecked me. In the best possible way. It directly confronts cynicism and misanthropy, and asks us to let them go if we can. I really needed its message. The whole world does now.
I’m “biast” (pro): love director Marielle Heller and star Tom Hanks; grew up with Mister Rogers
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have read the source material (and I love it)
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

I started sobbing from the opening moments of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and I didn’t stop crying for two hours. And then after I left the cinema and ran into a fellow film critic who had also just seen it, I literally could not manage a word of discussion without bursting into tears again.

This film wrecked me. Utterly wrecked me. In the best possible way. I saw myself in it. It was speaking to me in that same way that Mister Rogers always magically seemed to be doing from out of the TV when I was little kid. And I really needed its message. The whole world does right now.

I did not imagine this movie would affect me like it did. Even last year’s wonderful Fred Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor (which I will review asap) did not hit me like this.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Tom Hanks
Talking to puppets turns out to be actually quite freeing…

I grew up with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I was born in 1969, and I was one of that generation of kids that people feared were going to be destroyed by television (and maybe we were?), which Fred Rogers was hoping to forestall with his show. I do remember his gentle soothing that it was okay to be angry sometimes, and here’s how to deal with that, and his reassurances that I was okay just as I was (though I don’t know how much that took), and the odd fantasies of his puppets and the weird king and the trolley between reality and make-believe, and so on.

I think the idea that a world of wild imagination was just an easy mass-transit journey away might be a thing I kept. But not much else of his show stuck with me — or so I thought — in the way as that other OMG-save-the-children! kiddie show that debuted around the same time, Sesame Street. I continued to revisit Street well into my teens and 20s, cuz it was snarky and meta and funny, even once I was well beyond kindergarten. But I’m pretty sure I never watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood once I started going to school at age five.

And still, from the moment Tom Hanks (Toy Story 4, The Post) ambled into Mister Rogers’s little house and changed out of his jacket for a cardigan, and out of his shoes for sneakers (this is how every episode opened, in case you don’t know that), and settled in to introduce a tale about his friend Lloyd, I descended to blubbering. Maybe it’s not a matter of “still,” as if there was some contradiction in what I brought to the movie versus what it gave to me, but precisely the opposite: Perhaps Neighborhood instantly slammed me back into the vulnerability of being a very small, very uncertain, very scared child, and then instantly reassured me that everything I was feeling, all the turmoil and confusion, was, in fact, absolutely okay. Just like Lloyd!

This is a movie about being kind and gentle not by thoughtless default but with deliberate aforethought, to counter the hate and anger and pain and despair of the world. To fight it.

This is the beauty and the genius of Marielle Heller’s (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) not-a-biopic movie about Fred Rogers. This isn’t a movie about him as a person — or, at least, it’s that only tangentially. This is a story that is profoundly about the impact he had on all of us who watched him on TV, and on the world at large, via his impact offscreen on one adult person. Heller — and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (who as a team helped write Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) — frame the entire movie as an episode of Neighborhood, with gentle lessons that will be imparted, pitched not to children but to us adults today. This isn’t just a movie that is uncynical: it directly confronts cynicism and misanthropy and anger and resentment and all the other heavy unpleasant emotions that weigh down so many of us, and asks us to let them go if we can, or at least to acknowledge the damage they might be doing us.

In 1998, New York journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys: Burnt, Beau Brummell: This Charming Man), a nasty-ass writer with a rep for meanness, is assigned — as a joke but for real, too — by his editor (Christine Lahti) at Esquire to write a quickie 400-word blurb about Fred Rogers for an upcoming issue on American heroes. Vogel goes to visit Rogers (Hanks, because, seriously, who else?) in his Pittsburgh studio for an interview. To say that Vogel is skeptical is an understatement: he keeps waiting for the “real” Rogers to emerge, the man behind the TV illusion, who surely cannot be as good and as pure and as noble as he seems. But there is no distinction between the performance and the man — the Mister Rogers of TV is not a character. Fred Rogers is a man who is precisely what he presents himself to be. Almost unnervingly, almost unbelievably, although yet also immensely plausibly, too.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighhorbood Tom Hanks Matthew Rhys
They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes. But Mister Rogers wasn’t one of Lloyd’s heroes…

It’s all a beautiful wonder. And it takes some time, but Rogers becomes a friend to Lloyd and has an intense impact on Lloyd. Those of us watching may not be as “broken” — Lloyd’s word — as Lloyd is, but his brokenness is very much a reflection of the world today: this mistrust in authority figures, the exhaustion with the bullshit. It’s tough to accept that anyone — particularly anyone with a public persona — could be so authentic, so honest, so nice.

And this is 20 years ago! (We are so much more hardened and more angry and more unkind than we were then.) Neighborhood is inspired by Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire article — yes, about heroes; he ended up writing not 400 but 10,000 utterly un-world-weary words. Junod’s personal stuff has been fictionalized, but the Rogers stuff in the movie is completely recognizable from the Esquire essay (you can read it online). Junod has now written a brand-new piece for The Atlantic about the legacy of his friendship with Rogers, in which he suggests that “just about everything [Rogers] stood for has been lost.” I hope that’s not true… and if it’s not, this could be a movie that reminds us how to re-energize it. This is a movie about kindness, yes, and gentleness, yes, but also about intentionality — it’s about being kind and gentle not by thoughtless default but with deliberate aforethought, to counter the hate and anger and the pain and the despair of the world. To fight it. And to be kind to ourselves, which feels like a thing that gets more difficult all the time.

I think I forgot these lessons from the Mister Rogers of my childhood. But I welcome the reminder. And now I am trying to figure out how to make that happen, and make it happen with the spirit of a child who doesn’t know that isn’t impossible. Maybe I feel a bit scolded by this movie, that I have lost a certain spirit. Maybe we all need this scolding.

viewed during the 63rd BFI London Film Festival

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