It’s easy to understand the nostalgia for Fred Rogers. A figure of unambiguous good, the American entertainer provided a dependable and steady hand of guidance for children and, arguably, an entire nation, in times of emotional crisis. There was no one else like him. 

A year since the release of her Oscar-nominated drama Can You Ever Forgive Me?, director Marielle Heller brings her unique touch to A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a film about the beloved television personality who preached messages of tolerance, kindness and self-worth. She manages to capture him in a way that feels attainable – as though encouraging viewers to follow his example. 

Based on American journalist Tom Junod’s profile for Esquire (an experience that Junod said changed his life), Heller’s film uses Rogers as a supporting player to Matthew Rhys’ Lloyd Vogel (the character based on Junod), a reporter struggling to improve his damaged relationship with his father. This is introduced via an “episode” in the style of the preschool TV series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, as Rogers speaks about forgiveness. It’s a fantastical approach that continues in the film’s establishing shots.

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At first, Vogel bristles at the idea of profiling Rogers because he is sceptical of his perceived “saintliness”, which makes for charming comedy. Hank’s turn as Mister Rogers balances the myth of the public figure with his famed humility; it’s a quiet, humble performance that steers just clear enough of imitation, while the film resists, for the most part, leaning too heavily on nostalgia. Instead, it uses Rogers to explore his values via the effect on the people who come into contact with him. 

Really, this is about Vogel, given how Heller focuses on his struggle to connect with his estranged family and the one waiting for him at home. Rhys is astounding in his performance of someone slowly rotting due to their internalised anger and regret, who gradually learns (with Rogers’ help) how to be less cynical about life. 

The story of Vogel and Rogers’ connection is conventional, but Heller imbues it with delightful creative flourishes that set it apart from how a standard biopic might tackle this particular story. It may not be revolutionary, but it’s hard not to be moved by the film’s warmth and kind heart. 

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