There may never be a more appropriate motion picture to open Indy's Heartland International Film Festival than 2019 Opening Night selection A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a Tom Hanks starrer that fits so beautifully within the framework of what it means to be a Heartland film that it's almost hard to imagine that any other film this year will be necessary.
Of course, Heartland Film Fest will be showing other films.
The moment we all heard about the project, I'm pretty sure there was a collective universal gasp. Inside, we were secretly whispering to ourselves "Please don't ruin it. Please don't ruin it. Please don't ruin it."
Trust me, director Marielle Heller doesn't ruin it. In fact, she makes it all incredibly sublime.
The casting of beloved Tom Hanks as an even more beloved Mr. Rogers is a casting coup for the generations, so inspired that it seems practically pre-destined by the cinematic gods. In the opening moments that we see Hanks as Fred Rogers, there's a moment of breathlessness until he begins singing those familiar words and we begin to realize that all is right with the universe.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn't a Fred Rogers biopic, but there's absolutely no denying that even a single wrong note by Hanks could have potentially derailed the entire thing.
Hanks never hits a single wrong note in a performance that is, without question, going to be remembered come awards season.
Having had its acclaimed world premiere at TIFF earlier this year, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a slam dunk for newly named Heartland Artistic Director Greg Sorvig, whose programming slate this year further cements Heartland's journey toward the top of the nation's film festivals.
Marielle Heller, director of last year's Melissa McCarthy starring Can You Ever Forgive Me?, lays claim to being one of the best and most consistently engaging filmmakers working today with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a film that at its core is as much about forgiveness and friendship as it is about Mr. Rogers.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is based upon Tom Junod's Esquire article; Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster's screenplay largely focusing itself on the relationship between Esquire investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, The Americans), who is tasked with penning a 400-word essay for the magazine's "hero" issue. The timing isn't exactly great for the already somewhat jaded Vogel, whose attention is divided between a new baby boy and a reappearing father (Chris Cooper) whose emotional distance has long toyed with the psychologically fractured and defensive writer. Vogel's inability to forgive and move forward is creating tension with his adoring, loyal wife (Susan Kelechi Watson, This Is Us) and it's almost inevitable that Vogel enters his time with Fred Rogers with more than a little cynicism.
It's inevitable, I suppose, that you'll end up wanting just a little more than you get from A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. After all, who doesn't want more of Mr. Rogers in life? I found myself longing to be just a little bit more immersed in the world of Mr. Rogers, from his familiar characters to his wife Joanne (Maryann Plunkett), but Heller plays everything so wonderfully here that it's practically impossible to complain about the way this beautiful, impactful story unfolds. In essence, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn't truly about Mr. Rogers but about the little ways and the big ways that he impacted us individually and as a society.
In other words, I wanted more but A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is still perfect just the way it is.
There are a myriad of ways in which A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood could have derailed, but Heller's precise yet warm touch keeps it afloat even in its weepy, sentimental moments. If you've seen the trailer, you've already seen a glimpse of a scene involving a subway full of riders simultaneously bursting out into that familiar Mister Rogers tune. It's a scene that should have been a disaster, yet it's a scene that is everything you want it to be.
Hanks is simply extraordinary here and reminds us once again why he's truly one of this generation's most gifted, versatile actors. Even in the early moments when your shifting from Tom-to-Fred, the transformation feels natural and you find yourself immersed within it. Hanks made me believe over and over and over again.
Hanks captures not just the persona of Mr. Rogers, but the little things that added up to truly being Mr. Rogers like his ability to be quietly present, his active listening skills, his quiet compassion, and his sense of uncommon grace.
While Hanks is exceptional here and serves up a performance even far greater than we could have possibly hoped for, perhaps the film's real revelation is a career-best performance by Matthew Rhys as Lloyd Vogel. Rhys's Vogel is complex in an entirely different way, a wound up ball of high-strung cynicism, wounded inner child, frightened new parent, and vibrant transformation that wows and aches and utterly convinces. Rhys makes us understand how his 400-word assignment turned into a 9,000 word piece of transformative, culturally revealing literature. Rhys's world is changed by this interview and he takes us right along with him every single step of the way.
As was always true of Mister Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood doesn't shy away from difficult emotions and experiences - it makes them safe.
Tender-hearted and completely enchanting in every single moment, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is one of the best films of 2019 and, at the very least, a guaranteed Academy Award nomination for Hanks and, if there's any justice, Heller as well.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic