Why Tom Hanks' new movie will shock your soul

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood looks sweet, but it bites

Proceed with caution: I have never seen a film like A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood and it should have come with a warning.

From watching one trailer and one jovial interview, my expectation was that it would be a feast of nostalgia for American adults who had grown up watching beloved children’s television host Fred Rogers, portrayed by Tom Hanks (nominated this week for Best Supporting Actor Oscar).

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Released at Australian cinemas from January 23, the film opens with a soft, plinky-plonky ditty reminiscent of the original series Mister Rogers Neighbourhood. A sound I wasn’t familiar with, having grown up in the UK. However when the opening scene caused someone behind me to say, ‘Oh it’s like Play School,’ my nostalgia was calibrated with the American audience. I eased into my chair, set to watch a sweet and gentle film.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is a film about Mr. Rogers, yes, but it’s no biopic. It shows Roger’s ideas in practice through the lens of Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys), a writer for Esquire magazine. Vogel has recently become a dad and has a complicated relationship with his own father. When assigned to write a short piece on modern day heroes, Vogel is asked to meet with Rogers, but the interviewer becomes the interviewee and what follows could have been stereotypically saccharine, but it isn’t.

The story unfolds as you would expect, but it’s the execution that moves it into a league of its own.

The cynical and angry protagonist, Vogel, effectively acts as a bridge to a modern day audience while director Marielle Heller makes some choices that cultivate the feelings of the original show. Simply by waiting, Rogers often allowed time for what he was saying to settle in the minds of his audience. Heller is unafraid of silence and through Hanks’ nuanced delivery, including glances at the camera, there are several moments of extended silence.

In these moments the ‘fourth wall’ is broken and we, the audience, are no longer being entertained. Without warning, we are being seen.

This move trades sugary nostalgia for the salt of introspection, inviting the audience to reflect not on their history with the TV show, but on their personhood. Something I didn’t see coming!

The film takes an understated approach to Roger’s active Christian faith. We see him praying one evening, but that’s the only explicit portrayal of his belief in God. This may have been a deliberate choice by the director to echo that, although an ordained minister, Rogers never mentioned God or his faith on the show.

In a recent interview, his wife Joanne says his show was Rogers’ ministry, and that he was deliberate about showing religious values, but not using religious talk. The purpose was to exemplify Christ-likeness.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood specifically examines the value of forgiveness. It also addresses the nature of feelings, where they come from and how to deal with them. It attempts to grind down cynicism through vulnerability and kindness. Not unlike Jesus, Mr. Rogers was unafraid to tackle difficult subjects with grace. He spent a week on his program teaching on divorce and its effects; he even addressed terrorism. He gave permission to the children watching to feel, then guided them to take responsibility for those feelings and manage them so that, ‘You don’t hurt yourself or anyone else.’

In an age that emphasises ‘self-care’, this film boldly portrays ‘self-management’.

In Ephesians 4, the apostle Paul writes instructions for Christian living, the chapter ending with ‘Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.’ It wouldn’t surprise me if this was a foundation scripture for Roger’s approach to his show.

The most poignant moments for me, where when we witness glimmers of Roger’s imperfection. The film shows how Rogers was labelled a saint by the media – because of the tone of his show and his clean living – but his wife shoots down that notion, reminding everyone that her husband is a person. Rogers, himself, admits his humanity, how he struggles with anger, but doesn’t indulge it. And in an age that emphasises ‘self-care’, this film boldly portrays ‘self-management’.

Should you go and see A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood? Yes but, again, take note: the film is highly emotive and encourages deep introspection, something I wasn’t prepared for … but appreciated. It’s woven with triggers which depict childhood trauma, so much so that one of the cinema-goers behind me suggested the film should come with a warning. (Truth be told, I had a few moments where I could have broken into a sob.) That said, if you would like to be schooled in empathy and in being present; if you’re open to learning what vulnerability looks like and how it leads to compassion, then by all means you should go to see it, but proceed with caution.

I am still surprised by Heller’s approach to telling Rogers story but, in spite of its willingness to take on confronting themes, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood gently instils hope in the future.

Toward the end of the film, at a time of deep pain and disappointment Mr. Rogers says to Vogel, ‘Anything mentionable is manageable.’ That brief bit of advice reminded me that, with God, all things are possible.

Sam Buckerfield has written scripts for children’s television shows, and for Hillsong Channel. He is also an author and copywriter.

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