If you never encountered the beloved US children’s TV show Mr Rogers’ Neighbourhood, you will miss some of the subtleties of this appealing film from director Marielle Heller.
You might wonder about the opening sequence, where Mr Rogers (Tom Hanks at his best) takes off his jacket and shoes, dons a red cardigan and sneakers, and breaks into a catchy song: “Won’t You Be My Neighbour?”.
It turns out that this is a recreation of the opening sequence of the folksy TV show, where the gentle, soft-spoken Mr Rogers chatted with children, puppets and other characters.
Mr Rogers encouraged children to deal with emotions like anger and grief by using words to express their feelings: “It’s good to say the things we feel”.
The film, based on a real-life story, features a cynical journalist, Llloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), who is assigned to write a brief 400-word profile on Mr Rogers as part of an Esquire feature on local heroes.
“Why me? I don’t do puff pieces,” complains Vogel, who has won a reputation as a hard-hitting investigative reporter.
“He was the only one of our heroes who was prepared to be interviewed by you,” says the news editor.
Vogel is an angry young man. He has a loving wife and a new baby son but he spends too much time away on work assignments and he is unsure about how to deal with fatherhood.
He has rejected his own father for abandoning his mother when she was dying of cancer. When his father (a suitably boorish Chris Cooper) arrives drunk at his sister’s wedding, Vogel explodes with rage.
Unwillingly, he turns up for the hero interview – but it doesn’t take long for the empathetic Mr Rogers to sense that the reporter is a man dealing with a lot of inner conflict.
Vogel soon finds, to his frustration, that his subject seems more interested in getting answers from him than he is in revealing himself.
It’s no surprise to learn that eventually Mr Rogers’ essential goodness and decency breaks down Vogel’s resistance until he starts to reexamine his feelings.
Vogel’s character is based on the acclaimed Esquire journalist Tom Junod, whose profile on Mr Rogers, “Can You Say…Hero?” was published in 1998, the year the film takes place.
Junod has said he changed his perspective on life after his encounter with Fred Rogers.[
If you didn’t know this film was inspired by a true story, you might dismiss it as too sentimental and improbable.
But the result is genuinely heart-warming, and the way director Heller has captured the settings Mr Rogers’ make-believe neighbourhood is charming.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood opens at the Windsor Cinema on Wednesday, 15 January, with a morning tea at 10.30am.