TIFF ’19: ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’ Reminds Us That We Were All Kids Once

When we’re children, life seems incomprehensible and strange, an amalgamation of emotions that we aren’t sure how to navigate. But as it turns out, that doesn’t change much when we’re adults. We are a mess of traumas and confusion, trying to go through life like we’re fine when we’re very much not. This is where the incomparable Mr. Rogers comes in, a soothing wave of compassion and empathy who wants us all to know it is OK to be angry sometimes. In A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Marielle Heller’s latest film after Can You Ever Forgive Me?, journalist Tom Junrod is a stand-in for all of us, a ball of resentment and fear that learns how to parse those feelings through red-cardigan-clad Fred Rogers. 

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Is based on Junrod’s 1998 profile of Rogers that appeared in Esquire magazine. Matthew Rhys plays Junrod, who at the time was a jaded journalist who was desperate to find out the worst things about humanity. He digs at people, writing exposes and long pieces of investigative journalism. So he is shocked when his editor assigns him to a puff piece about Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks), famed children’s TV show host. What Junrod expects to just be a short interview about a joyous old man becomes a transformative process where he learns how to process his trauma and forgive his father.

This is not your typical biopic. It is not a profile of Mr. Rogers’ life; we already got that with Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Instead, it is about a regular man and how he finds a way to access his emotions through the encouragement and support of Mr. Rogers. It is a film about overcoming expectations of toxic masculinity, such as turning fear into anger and violence, and confronting your feelings head on. Through Rogers, Junrod learns what he is really feeling, how he can process those feelings, and how he can ultimately become a better person, father, husband, and son.

But the process of overcoming those feelings is not easy, especially when they stem from trauma. Junrod harbors anger and resentment towards his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), who abandoned his family when Junrod’s mother was dying. For decades, Junrod refused to acknowledge or speak to his father, ignoring any of his attempts to reach out and reconcile. But when his father gets sick, Junrod needs to make a decision about how to deal with this impending, and complicated, death. 

I have my fair share of childhood traumas that stem from my father. We recently stopped talking and my greatest fear is that he gets ill while we are no longer speaking. I don’t believe that everyone deserves forgiveness, and this film hasn’t exactly changed my mind about my own relationship with my dad, but it certainly hit home. Every time Junrod’s father is mentioned, his ears start to ring and he seizes up, trying to remain calm while his mind is flooded with fear. I know this feeling all too well, a feeling that makes my heart race, my palms sweat, and my mouth dry up. It is a special kind of fear reserved for those things we wish to avoid most. 

Rhys captures that fear perfectly as Junrod. He is jaded and hardened, but vulnerable; he wants to appear strong but often reveals how raw he really is. Hanks, on the other hand, is an image of kindness as Fred Rogers. He speaks in Rogers’ signature calming voice and just radiates warmth. Sometimes it is distracting to see Tom Hanks in this role, as it is hard to forget that this is the Tom Hanks. Regardless, he does his damnedest to bring the iconic child’s TV show host to life. He sings, he laughs, he comforts; I want Tom Hanks to be my neighbor. 

Heller eschews typical biopic structure by focusing on the effects of Rogers rather than the man himself. He becomes ancillary, yet integral, to Junrod’s growth as a person. Instead of being in awe of Rogers, we are in awe of Junrod’s ability to extrapolate the teachings of Rogers into change. Through Junrod’s eyes, we are able to comprehend the sheer force that was Fred Rogers and how he can go through life seemingly so happy. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood says, “I know you have traumas and that’s OK,” then proceeds to wrap you in the warmest hug imaginable. 

You can check out the rest of our TIFF ’19 coverage here. 

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