By Siavash Minoukadeh, Entertainment Sub-Editor
Watching a film that is technically brilliant or excellently written can be rewarding and it can definitely be enjoyable. However, what is far rarer is a film so pure and joyous that it moves beyond these mundane aspects of production and performance and is simply a wholesome, emotional experience.
Among these joyous films I would include Agnes Varda’s Faces, Places (2017) and Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (2019) and now A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019). This is not to dismiss the film: it is not saccharine or overly pleasant - tough topics are explored in in it and it handles them well. However, at the core of it is a character so pure and loving that that positivity ends up seeping into every aspect of the film, and into the audience as well.
This character is Tom Hanks’ Mr Rogers, the American children’s show presenter, most notably of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001). Hanks does not look much like Rogers but he captures the same soothing cadence of his voice and is dressed in the same grandfatherly way. There is no use of extensive prosthetics à la Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour (2017) and Hanks still looks like Hanks: this is fine, if we wanted a visual similarity, we could just watch his old shows on Youtube. What matters is capturing Rogers’ character, not his likeness, and Hanks can do that excellently.
The production design captures a nostalgic atmosphere that is more universal
Rogers, like the children his show went out to, has not been touched by the cynicism that works its way into our lives over the years. It seems bizarre, watching a middle-aged man working in showbiz being so completely pleasant, and initially, we keep expecting a moment where he shows his true character. Like the journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) who is profiling Rogers, we find it difficult to accept that someone can really be this wholesome.
Yet there’s no point putting Rogers’ oversimplified character down to bad writing, as the Tom Junod (the journalist whom Lloyd is based off) article upon which the film is based shows him to genuinely be this kind. And besides, this is not a film that should be watched with a typically critical eye: though it does stand up to that kind of scrutiny quite well, it gives the viewer so much more if they just allow their emotions to take control while watching.
Though, not being American, I never watched Rogers’ shows growing up, the production design captures a nostalgic atmosphere that is more universal. With the aspect ratio switching from 16:9 to the older, TV aspect ratio of 4:3 for some montage sequences, it’s easy to be transported to the 90s, when A Beautiful Day is set.
This is not a film that should be watched with a typically critical eye: though it does stand up to that kind of scrutiny quite well
The main plot, which tracks how Rogers opens Lloyd’s damaged heart and allows for reconciliation with his father, is framed around a fictional episode of Rogers’ show. The primary colours, miniature town and cheery music all evoke a sense of goodwill and openness towards the whole film.
Like Lloyd, the audience initially find it difficult to understand that someone can just love everyone and whom everyone loves. There is a scene set on the New York subway, where children from a range of backgrounds and ethnicities see Rogers on the train and burst into the song which opens his show. It’s an unexpectedly rousing scene which has stuck with me.
In an age when everyone seems to have a secret and things have taken a turn for the dark, in film and in reality, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood stands as something of an oddity making an unflinching call for compassion and respect. It’s much-needed at a time like this.
Featured: IMDb / Lacey Terrell
What feel-good films can top A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’s wholesomeness?