I, like practically every other filmgoer last summer, fell hard for Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the shockingly necessary Morgan Neville documentary about Fred Rogers, THE neighbor for a generation of children and their parents. The film was a marvel in its simplicity; peeking behind the cameras at the man at the center of a show (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood), made for children, that addressed adult subject matter and dared to speak and feel like a child might about these issues. We were reminded of an impossibly good and fundamentally human man who sang little ditties, spoke thoughtfully, and lived so-in-the-moment that he always saw people for who they were, recognized what they needed, and dared to speak to that need, to offer some solace or remedy.
So, I, probably like quite a few folks, wasn’t particularly eager to embrace a feature film based on Mr. Rogers coming so closely on the heels of the documentary. What was the point? I asked that, despite the fact that I was intrigued by the casting of Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers, because, I’ve always seen a healthy bit of Mr. Rogers in Hanks, even his early wild hijinks on Bosom Buddies.
Think about it.
From Big to Forrest Gump, Hanks has given us man-children struggling to fit into either bodies or times where they might not belong. And even in projects like Cast Away and The Terminal, Hanks might face extreme anger and alienation, but in doing so, it’s as if he’s showing us how to handle it better, with humor and grace. Plus, we can’t forget that he’s also vocally embodied the voice of everyone’s favorite toy – Woody in the Toy Story franchise – as well as the iconic myth behind Disney, Mr. Walt Disney (in Saving Mr. Banks).
It’s too soon was my only fear. Too soon.
But not for Marielle Heller, the director of The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Can You Ever Forgive Me? – two films that won me over by drawing me into the worlds of their protagonists.
Diary of a Teenage Girl spoke to me as a stepfather of two daughters, forcing me to question how well I knew and had helped to prepare my girls life on their own. It instilled an extra hint of fear in me and made me find ways to let them know I loved them even more. Can You Ever Forgive Me lured me into the life of a writer, a different kind of life and writing than I do for a living, but a path I initially envisioned for myself a few decades back, in what seems like another lifetime. I, like Melissa McCarthy’s Lee Israel, had been at the crossroads, realizing that the dream of writing what I wanted wasn’t going to pay the bills, so I toiled away in another field as my creative energy started to curdle. I never ventured onto the shady path Israel tread, but I could understand its allure.
It’s not surprising at all that Heller and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue & Noah Harpster conjure up another excellent conceit to weave us into the neighborhood of Fred Rogers. This time, it is inspired by an Esquire Magazine piece on Rogers by writer Tom Junod – here transformed into Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) as a hard-edged long-form feature writer assigned to do a light 400-word piece on Rogers for a themed issue on heroes. Vogel can’t believe Rogers is as good and pure as he comes across, so he believes it is his duty to pierce the veil to uncover the real man behind the saintly persona.
But the film pulls a clever trick that could have gone horribly awry; it presents Vogel as a man unable to reconcile the fractured pieces of his own life – his largely absent father (Chris Cooper) who abandoned Vogel and his sister while their mother was on her deathbed and his own relationship with his wife (Renée Elise Goldsberry) and their newborn son. When angry, Vogel fights and runs (often at the same time) like The Incredible Hulk, destroying everything in his path. It is a sight to behold.
Until Fred Rogers takes him in, turning his life and issues into an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. How do you deal with anger over being abandoned by a parent in a time of great and urgent need? How do you figure out how to be a better parent to your own son and the lost son trapped inside?
I sat in a packed theater, full of press and industry professionals, wishing that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and its conceit could be mine, that I could be the subject of Vogel’s episode. Having been raised by a loving and capable single mother and waiting until late adulthood to track down my own father for an all-too brief half-hour exchange a year or two before he died, I wish that I could have had the guidance of a Fred Rogers to assist me in that journey.
Fatherhood is such a loaded role, even more so for black men. Just a few days ago, I watched Sterling K. Brown as the father in Trey Edward Shults’ Waves offer intrusively tough love to his son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), yet withhold the very affection that could have prevented inevitable tragedy. If, as a black man, you’re a presence in your son’s life, you have to be hard, to mold him into a man who will (have to) be better than the world he’s about to enter.
But, in the end, it is not about the fathers at all. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood circles back to the choices we, as men, as people, make for ourselves. How do we deal with our anger? How do we learn about forgiveness? How do we love?
Fred Rogers showed us how men could express these feelings and Tom Hanks, as Mister Rogers, beautifully presents these lessons again, proving that he’s always been a pretty good neighbor too.