Just one year after storming into the Oscar race with her sophomore feature Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018), Marielle Heller has returned with yet another awards season contender in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, based on the true story of journalist Tom Junod’s feature story on Fred Rogers for Esquire in November 1998. Matthew Rhys, one year removed from wrapping on one of our finest television performances of the decade in FX’s The Americans, plays the journalist, who they renamed to Lloyd Vogel. Despite what the marketing and publicity might suggest, Lloyd is our main character here, examining his inner demons and reflecting on how his experience with the mystical Rogers changed him for the better. Of course, Tom Hanks plays Fred Rogers. He is certainly a focal point throughout the film and has been receiving the majority of the acclaim for the film’s success, seeming likely to get an Oscar nomination for his transformation. Despite this bid to get Hanks another Oscar (he hasn’t been nominated since Cast Away (2001) and hasn’t won since his back-to-back triumph with Forrest Gump (1994) and Philadelphia (1993)), the movie excels on the back of Rhys’ inspired lead performance and Heller’s ambitious direction.
We get bombarded with biopics every year that feel like deliberate vehicles for actors to transform into a historical figure for a couple hours so they can walk onstage and hoist that gold trophy above their heads a few months later. Just in the last few years we’ve had Rami Malek sing (perhaps that belongs in quotes) to the tune of Freddie Mercury, Gary Oldman puff cigars like Winston Churchill, and Eddie Redmayne solve problems like Stephen Hawking, just to name a few who have taken home the top prize. Contrary to the voting body’s infatuation with the genre, many people have grown very tired of the studio biopic and its abundance of clichés. So what sets this one apart? Heller elevates this above its peers by infusing it with her creative visual flair, hearkening back to some of the unique dreamlike sequences she employed in her debut feature The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015). There is one such sequence in this film that has been garnering attention and Heller has noted in interviews that studio executives had been trying to get her to remove it, but she insisted it should remain. Thankfully her vision was maintained, as it is easily one of the more fascinating scenes in the film and does a lot to bring the viewer inside the inner workings of Rhys’ character.
Speaking of Rhys, as mentioned earlier, it is his vulnerable lead performance that prevents the movie from feeling stale, having just examined the life of Fred Rogers in last year’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018). By coming at the film through this character, we get to see Fred Rogers as the mythical figure we all remember him to be. Lloyd is a deeply troubled man, with a dark past that comes back to haunt him in the form of his father, played expertly by journeyman Chris Cooper. If you have seen The Americans, you know there is perhaps nobody better at conveying a character’s genuine misery than Matthew Rhys. This really is the perfect role for him and he does a lot to carry the emotional pull of the film, going toe to toe with Hanks in a number of scenes that will be remembered as some of the best of the year. There is a scene featuring the two of them at a diner that belongs on both of their career highlight reels.
Marielle Heller’s third film is one that deserves all of the praise it has received. She actively strives to undercut some tropes of the studio biopic, while also positioning one of our most storied living actors in a position to stand out while not overstaying his welcome. Hanks settles into the role of Mr. Rogers with ease and by the film’s climax, we the viewer feel as though he has graced our lives, too. While the film doesn’t necessarily ever move into feeling transcendent, it succeeds at being very, very good at what it sets out to do in telling this story, as well as providing further reason to be excited for Heller’s career. This holiday season, we could all use a little Fred Rogers in our lives.