Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister from Pittsburgh better known simply as Mr. Rogers, is an unlikely movie star, and also an unlikely guy to be at the center of a movie. Mr. Rogers, after all, was the personification of niceness in a medium that prefers a little tension and conflict, a good guy who refuses to search for bad guys to tangle with.
But Morgan Neville’s exceptional documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” solved the problem last year by finding the doubt and pain at the heart of Mr. Rogers’ niceness, and by showing how much his purposefully cheesy “Land of Make Believe” in his long-running show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was grappling with real-world problems. And Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” which had its world premiere at September’s Toronto International Film Festival, takes the different approach of making Mr. Rogers the balm that helps heal a different troubled person, a magazine journalist badly in need of a shot of kindness.
It might be the softest, slowest movie that played in Toronto this year — but those are perfectly apt choices to tell this story. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” finds a gentle state of grace and shows the courage and smarts to stay in that zone, never rushing things or playing for drama.
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Make no mistake, there’s big drama here, as Matthew Rhys’ Lloyd Vogel — a slightly fictionalized version of Esquire journalist Tom Junod — is spurred by an interview with Fred Rogers to heal a stormy relationship with the philandering father who deserted the family when his wife fell ill.
But just as Mr. Rogers used his show to talk about big issues with children in a tone that was softer and more halting than you’d expect given the subject matter, so does Heller stick to understatement in a way that threatens to become dull or sappy but never does. What she pulls off here is a small, sweet miracle of sorts.
In her previous two films, “Diary of a Teenage Girl” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” Heller proved to be a remarkably empathetic and understated director, with a knack for comedy in the stories of troubled people.
And this film is indeed very funny, as investigative journalist Vogel chafes at the idea of a 400-word assignment to write about Rogers for a special issue devoted to heroes. And when his subject refuses to be bothered by tough questions, often as not thanking the writer for his insight, Vogel throws up his hands at the idea of getting a decent article out of it.
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There is, of course, a great article in it, though Vogel has to slowly realize that the real piece is about the way Mr. Rogers changes the life of an angry workaholic writer with a new baby at home and huge unresolved father issues of his own. (And the 400-word limit? Forget about it.)
Rhys is strong as Vogel, but the attraction will no doubt be Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers. It’s unlikely any other names were very high on Heller’s wish list, because Hanks is the only movie star with a niceness quotient to approach Mr. Rogers. Maybe that niceness has hurt him in recent years with awards voters (rather amazingly, Hanks, one of only two to win Best Actor Oscars in back-to-back years, hasn’t even been nominated since 2000). But it’s hard to imagine that his pitch-perfect channeling of Rogers’ magnificent and slightly unsettling calm won’t put him in the thick of a supporting-actor race that will probably be full of actors who could easily be considered co-leads, including Brad Pitt in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” Matt Damon in “Ford v Ferrari” and Anthony Hopkins in “The Two Popes.”
Suffice it to say that tears were flowing onscreen and off at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. Maybe Mr. Rogers will be too soft for some moviegoers, but the box office success of the “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” suggests that Sony could have a solid player in this lovely valentine to kindness at a time when that virtue is in desperately short supply around the world.