Tom Hanks’ Latest Masterpiece Reminds Men To Not Ignore Trauma
‘It’s good to talk, we’re much more real without the lock.’
Fred Rogers was a beacon of mankind’s emotional peak. In his efforts to connect with an individual child through the power of TV, he taught generations invaluable musings on death, divorce, war (it gets dark) and how to hone their feelings for good.
His brimming optimism is the foil of causal force in A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood – a heart-soaring look at one journalist’s fateful encounter with a necessary good.
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We’re placed in 1998. Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys playing a fictionalised version of Tom Junod, who wrote the article upon which the film is based) is a powerful writer for Esquire magazine. So much so, he’s growing a reputation as an award-winning wordsmith – but one with a cynical, off-putting edge.
He’s hampered with trauma from earlier in life: as his mother screamed on her deathbed, his dad (Chris Cooper) was of no use. As such, their relationship is complicated, with any reappearance causing a rippling anger through his veins (more so than normal).
However, he has other lives to care for: his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), with a newborn son, has also noticed his wearying outlook on the world. However, his life changed the moment his editor handed him a privileged assignment: a 400-word ‘puff piece’ profile of Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks), the beloved children’s television host.
The movie opens with Nate Heller’s twinkling composition to the tune of Won’t You Be My Neighbour?, a recurring chime throughout. Hanks’ immediate appearance in the first frames is like a warm blanket, singing the opening song, talking to you (not everyone, just you) through the screen. Really, it’s more of a feature-length sit-down with Mister Rogers than traditional prose.
The director’s command of the material is evident in every prop-based transition. Marielle Heller uses the Neighbourhood of Make-Believe as a quirky, ingenious framing device for the story, reinforcing the constant idea that every development in Lloyd’s journey is a lesson to be learned. It’s brilliantly, brilliantly effective.
The pertinent theme arises from a question: ‘Do you know what it means to forgive? It’s a decision we make to release a person of the feelings of anger we have for them’. Mister Rogers may be at the forefront of the film’s marketing, but this is very much a parable on Lloyd’s (and men’s) perennial battle with resentment.
Our central scribe is introduced as a career-shark, talking of how his job affords him ‘a front seat to history’ and a chance to unveil truth. It’s a virtuous first scene, but one steeped in the character’s deep-rooted detachment from enjoying life, more focused on exposing the downfalls of people he meets for catharsis.
Rhys plays him very well, clearly but not obtrusively layering him with complex emotional ticks and an almost constant displeasure. The sound design adds to this too, with a fuzzy, dizzying high frequency noise emerging through his head-space in times of conflict, often at odds with those trying to connect.
While his first meeting with Mister Rogers has a tinge of admiration, that pig-like desire to dig out a polemic kernel of a headline is a recurring hiccup. ‘That must be a burden’, he urges of the public’s complete trust in the host. But time and time again, he’s met with unflappable resolve, creating a fascinating emotional battle between an unstoppable force and immovable object.
Hanks’ performance resonates on a purely human level (particularly in one silent, fourth-wall breaking moment of earnestness) – more animated than the perpetually still real-life figure but nonetheless nostalgic, his honest-to-god sweetness is universally affecting. The fact he may almost seem too nice at times isn’t twee – rather, it’s a disarming indicator of the scepticism that’s rife today.
The world glows around him. While Heller’s uncanny, delicate recreation of 90s New York à la Can You Ever Forgive Me? is distinctly cold in colour, Mister Rogers lights up any scene, whether it be literally (in Jody Lee Lipes’ beautifully intimate cinematography) or through the happiness of his company (such as in one delightful subway singing scene).
His way of being is attainable, despite being dubbed ‘a living saint’. The juxtaposition between him and Lloyd makes for a gripping dynamic, like a modern-day George Bailey and Clarence. Lloyd’s journey doesn’t just stand out for his interactions with Mister Rogers: the film’s greater achievement is its recognition of trauma as an unavoidable, but beatable curse.
Cooper is introduced as a mildly belligerent, typically un-PC bad daddy: referring to Lloyd’s wife as ‘doll’, pushing him to have a drink, dragging unwarranted memories from the dirt to conjure a reaction. Inevitably, their reunion goes haywire: ‘Have you ever been so angry that you wanted to hurt someone?’.
This could give way to a father-son schmaltz-athon – but Heller knows better than to silly her audience with sugary sweet family drama. The key lies in the translation of Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue’s intelligent script to the screen – painting a sensitive portrait of an everyday family in repair, without clawing at sentimental contrivances.
‘There is no life free from pain’, Mister Rogers says. The difference lies in whether it’s forced upon us or we force it upon ourselves – for the writer at the centre of this story, it’s a mixture of both. Nobody’s throwing Lloyd’s reason for being into doubt, but his intent on staying that way is true of men’s tendency to repress their ill feelings.
Trauma helps people become who they are. Whether it’s minor or devastating, we’re formed by the experiences we endure. Lloyd’s struggles in A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood will speak to many out there battling their demons (only one dream sequence jumps the shark, just slightly). But, by the time Heller’s film reaches its heartfelt denouement, your faith in kindness might be restored too.
Don’t lock your acrimony away: mould it, hone it, acknowledge it. Use your memories as a vehicle for progress. Like Lloyd, I myself have put pen to paper to exorcise my own life-mares. Remember: ‘There’s always something to do with the mad you feel’.
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