Marielle Heller’s third feature A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a poignant glance into the morals of Fred Rogers, known as Mister Rogers, an icon of American children’s television. The film follows Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), journalist who holds onto the darkness of his past which shapes his pessimistic outlook on life. When tasked with interviewing Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks) for a profile in Esquire magazine. A sharp contrast to her previous films The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) and Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018), A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a wonderful film that allows Heller to incorporate her realist storytelling with hints of art and quirkiness through the use of puppetry. The film marks Tom Hanks first Oscar nomination in 19 years (he was last nominated for Cast Away in the Best Leading Actor category) and features a welcome lead performance from Welsh actor Matthew Rhys who is more known for his TV work. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a quieter film than its award season competitors but its message on love and forgiveness speaks volumes. What Heller manages to do is bring the softness of Mister Rogers’ personality and apply this to Vogel’s life, creating a friction and discomfort to Vogel’s character.
During an award season that has seen female filmmakers snubbed in the directing categories, it seems that Heller has yet again been overlooked. When comparing Heller’s vision to some of the contenders in the Best Director category, I do think she is more deserving. Her film seems simultaneously grounded and innovative at the same time bringing an effortless flair. What Heller does so well is drawing out the best from both her lead and supporting actors (see Bel Powley and Kristen Wiig in The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me? as prime examples). I think that Heller has really come into her own and on her third feature, has managed to show us how varied her talent is and her fearlessness in tackling various genres and topics. Despite being overlooked, I think that Heller will continue to wow in her future projects and she’ll only receive more attention and acclaim.Performance-wise, the cast is really strong, particularly from Rhys and Hanks. Rhys brings out the protagonist’s inner conflict where the hurt that he feels is overshadowed by the anger. In fact, it seems that Vogel is more of an antagonist in the first act but as he lowers his guard, we begin to understand why he is how he is. It is ultimately a film about forgiveness and acceptance and no revelation is more important than the moment when Vogel accepts himself and his situation. The moment when he confronts his mum is heartbreaking and provides a bittersweet release for him as he allows himself to move forward with his life and enjoy the life that he has. I think that Rhys provides a side of his acting that we have not seen before and although Hanks is undoubtedly the highlight of the film, I think that Rhys will only get better from now on and has managed to successfully break into mainstream films.
In the supporting role, Hanks excels as Mister Rogers and was the big draw for critics and audiences alike and with good reason. From the moment he enters the screen, he is charismatic and gentle and truly becomes Mister Rogers. Admittedly after watching this, Hanks became my favourite for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, although I completely appreciate that Brad Pitt was nothing short of phenomenal in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. There was something about Hanks’ performance that harked back to the 90s when he was King of the Silver Screen that is a stark reminder that he is capable of truly captivating performances. I love Hanks in everything he does (I even compiled a top 10 which you can read here) and will admit that I find the Dan Brown adaptations entertaining but A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is among his best.
Another aspect of this film that I adored is the costume design. Simply and quintessentially American, Indian costume designer Arjun Bhasin does a brilliant job at encapsulating the late 90s style and mixing it with a nostalgic 70s feel when it comes to Mister Rogers. Particularly, the standout for the costume department is the iconic Mister Rogers cardigan. As an avid knitter, I was interested in reading about the conception and process of the knitting process for this film. Yasemin Esmek spent nine weeks making each cardigan and the results are amazing. The craftsmanship is so good and the details are beautiful. The costume designs overall are simple but it was important that they get the cardigan correct due to its association with Mister Rogers. I think that the costume team deserved award recognition for their work but it wasn’t to be and hopefully this only continues the interest in handmade knitted costumes in film. Much like the puppetry used for scene transitions, I love the craftsmanship and passion that was brought to the costumes and production design and feel that it is a shame that this wasn’t praised as much as other films were that were less creative. I wasn’t expecting to love A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood as much as I did as I thought it was going to be run-off-the-mill Oscar bait but I left the cinema feeling a mix of emotions. It was funny, dramatic, heartbreaking and hopeful all rolled into one. Despite being set in the 90s and reminiscent and nostalgic for the 70s, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood feels fresh and seems to be a new kind of family film. It isn’t afraid of delving into dark topics while remaining appropriate and light at the same time. It stayed with me long after the credits rolled and is among my favourites of awards season. It is a shame that the film didn’t garner more than its single Oscar nomination because Heller’s direction and Nate Heller’s score are brilliant and deserved the recognition.
What did you think of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood? Let me know in comments below!