It's a sad truth that great films often fall through the cracks, and the justice they can hope for is to be rediscovered later and acknowledged as the classics they are. This certainly must be the future for Marielle Heller's 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood'. There are a number of reasons why the film didn't seem to connect with Australian audiences, least of all the prominence of Fred Rogers, an icon of children's television in the U.S. but essentially unknown here. It also had the disadvantage of being released at the height of our national bushfire crisis, where the idea of a schmaltzy feelgood probably wasn't high on most audiences' priorities. The truth of the fact is that 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood' may be the most vital film of our current time, where we exist in a constant state of isolation and uncertainty. Far from being schmaltzy or sentimental, it is a film of astounding power and tremendous grace, speaking directly to that sense of uncertainty and offering the glimmer of light in the dark.
New York-based journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, 'The Post', 'The Report', TV's 'The Americans') is given the assignment to write a profile on beloved television presenter Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks, 'Sully', 'Bridge of Spies', 'Cloud Atlas'). At first highly cynical of Fred's gentle nature and enormous empathy, Lloyd starts to fall under Fred's spell, and in turn is forced to face his personal demons and the complicated relationship with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper, 'Little Women').
'A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood' is one of those rare films where it's almost impossible to fault a single choice made. The decision to focus on Lloyd rather than Fred Rogers is a quiet stroke of genius from writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, circumnavigating the tired clichés of the biopic and preserving the integrity of Rogers' legacy. By framing it as an episode of Fred's own television show, it allows the film to fully engage with the language and iconography of that legacy, and Lloyd's story becomes a lens through which we can come close to understanding it. When Lloyd and Fred collide, the former is a man riddled with the poison of past trauma, of anger he has no direction for and scars he can't give the air to heal. The journey of the film is that of giving space to trauma, to facing it and understanding it, and making way for forgiveness and grieving. There's such a palpable sense of exquisite sadness to this film, an ache in the heart that feels as necessary and empowering as it is devastating.
'A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD' TRAILER
In a way, that makes this the perfect cinematic dramatisation of Fred Rogers. It acts as a biography not of his life but of his philosophy, one where allowance must be given for sadness and anger as much as joy and happiness, that the two go hand-in-hand and that the world can only move forward with kindness and understanding. Filtering this through the story of a child may have made it too gauche or sentimental, but through the lens of adult trauma, it has a weight and resonance, and speaks to Rogers' power beyond simply being a children's television presenter.
As Lloyd, Matthew Rhys embodies that conflict between anger and devastation with great integrity, and every choice he makes steers clear of obvious or histrionic emotion. As the heart and centre of the film, it could not be in better hands. In fact, there's not a performance out of step in the film, from Chris Cooper's equally complex and heartbreaking performance as Jerry, or a sublime turn from Susan Kelechi Watson as Lloyd's wife Andrea, brilliant and patient but determined to push Lloyd through his demons.
Of all the performances though, it is Tom Hanks who achieves the miraculous as Fred Rogers, and it has nothing to do with accuracy or imitation. Rogers is a cultural enigma, incredibly generous yet intensely private, and Hanks spins that enigma into something magical, almost mythical. He understands how unknowable Rogers needs to be, and yet his performance has such infinite depth, such overwhelming care, an indescribable concoction of sadness and hope that hits you right in the heart, even if you don't know where in Fred it comes from. It feels absurd to say about one of the greatest living actors, but this might be his finest performance. It left me in awe and took my breath away.
In all this, I haven't mentioned Marielle Heller ('Can You Ever Forgive Me?', 'The Diary Of A Teenage Girl'), because I wanted to save my praise for her until last. Her direction in this film is absolutely incredible. In many ways, this is Heller's film, so gentle and astounding are her creative choices, from the decision to embrace the visual language of Rogers' show to the decision to shoot on 16mm to the astounding way she and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes place every character within the frame. Heller allows the film to breathe and thus allows it and us to feel, to consider, to grieve, to comprehend. She doesn't try to reduce Rogers to the ordinary, but places him at the intersection between the human and the mythical, like an American angel carrying the weight of a country's hopes and fears. There are countless moments in this film worthy of any essay or analysis, but everything it is and hopes to be culminates in the second act in a scene so incredible, so miraculous, so gargantuan that it must be counted as one of the great moments in recent American cinema. In only her third film, Heller has delivered a masterwork, one that establishes her as one of the true greats of our time. In future decades, we are going to talk about her with the same effusive adoration with which we speak of Hal Ashby or Jonathan Demme or Steven Spielberg. We are in the midst of a true artist ascending.
There's such a palpable sense of exquisite sadness to this film, an ache in the heart that feels as necessary and empowering as it is devastating.
'A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood' is such an astoundingly beautiful, generous and miraculous film. It stayed with me for weeks afterwards in a way few films have in a long while, and revisiting it only made me love it more. We are living in a difficult and frightening time, where the manner in which we have lived our lives is shifting into unknown, potentially frightening territory. We are separated from our loved ones and our friends, suddenly facing financial and emotional crises of which we can do nothing, and tasked with the responsibility of acting for the good of our community by weathering this unforgiving storm. We need films like this right now - films that show us the importance of grieving, of accepting our trauma, of acknowledging our fear and our anger, and how we can use them as a path towards kindness and understanding and empathy and love. 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood', Marielle Heller's quiet miracle, is a classic for all time, but more importantly, a classic for our time.
PICTURE & SOUND
The decision to shoot the film on mostly 16mm means that this was never going to be a reference quality presentation, but as an accurate representation of the intended visual language of the film, this 1080p 1.85:1 presentation is tremendous. There's still a crispness to the image that doesn't do away with its natural grain, allowing you to fully enjoy the period detailing and texture. This is a quietly cinematic film, with subtle moments of visual flair from Heller and Lipes, and the transfer enhances these beautifully, especially the ending. Colours are gorgeous and muted, popping at all the right times. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is never overwhelming or bombastic, but is beautifully balanced and crisp, making it a perfect complement to the video presentation.
Heller and Lipes offer an insightful commentary to accompany the film, offering insights into the creative decisions and their relationship with the dramaturgy of the film. They are complemented by a series of well-made featurettes, a touch more thorough than most EPK-style material. They include:
- 'Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers' (10:29), looking at how Hanks approached portraying Rogers, including how he navigated the differences in energy between himself and Fred.
- 'The People Who Make a Neighbourhood: The Making Of' (15:23), which offers a more general overview of the production process, including the casting and the creative decisions over how to approach the look and sound of the film.
- 'Dreaming Big, Building Small: The Puppets & Miniatures' (1080p, 8:37), a terrific look at the recreation and adaptation of the miniatures and puppets from Rogers' television show, the originals of which were too valuable and delicate to use.
There are also two blooper reels, one traditional (1:38) and another hosted by Daniel Tiger, 'Daniel Tiger Explains: Practice Makes Perfect' (2:42), as well as a series of deleted scenes (16:45).