Marielle Heller’s latest is one of the year’s best films and a likely breakout hit for the immensely talented director
There’s a point in most indie filmmakers’ careers in which, after proving their worth in successful and award-winning indie fare, they get offered a major studio picture to direct, mostly about heroes in spandex. Such big budgeted films offer them not only a paycheck that can propel their careers forward, but offers them the chance to be recognized by the general public after years of indie work that has been mostly, or perhaps solely, seen by festival crowds and curious arthouse seekers on streamers.
But for Marielle Heller, an extremely gifted director known for an intimate approach to storytelling, how do you approach a studio picture about a beloved hero, albeit not a superhero one though not in any way less iconic, without losing your directorial stamp, your integrity and your firm belief in the importance of the intimate, the emotion and the truth behind characters we seem to think we know?
In the hands of any less talented director, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD could have been an awards-bait, by-the-numbers, pat and schmaltzy biopic that tells a more conventional rise-to-fame story of Mr. Rogers, one of North America’s most beloved TV hosts. Rogers has left a legacy of thousands of filmed hours that have quickly turned into a classic example of quality children TV programming – but Heller’s challenge was twofold: first, how do you tell a story about a man whose life lacked dramatic twists, meaty moments or unexpected truths? In fact, do you tell that story at all? And second, can this story evade Rogers’ Disney-like, sweet and perhaps too kind nature that can turn the picture into a sanitized, glossy and traditional film made to make money and earn the money with the least effort or ambition possible?
Thankfully Heller tackles both challenges with an approach that not only preserves her identity as a director interested first and foremost in layering her characters and avoiding shallow representations as well as achieving the right and intricate balance between approaching a story of humanity and kindness and grounding it reality and juxtaposing it against a world, today, marked by cynicism, anxiety, hatred and despair. By making the right decision to avoid turning the film into a traditional biopic and smartly focusing on two characters – Mr. Rogers and a cynical, investigative journalist – who couldn’t be more different in approaching life, Heller makes A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHRBORHOOD much more than a story of a ‘TV saint’ and yet, still rings very true, genuine and reflective of real issues we face today.
An antidote to the way the world today cynically approaches kindness, and a time when news cycles are full of headlines that emphasize the bigotry, hatred and anger in our world today, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHRBORHOOD begs the question: is kindness a mythical, perhaps too old-fashioned, notion that perhaps has expired in our world today? And could a show like Mr. Rogers’ have survived in an age where mere tweets have turned into missiles and hatred-inducing instruments to the point that there seems there’s just no escape?
The screenplay, certain to be one of the year’s major contenders, pits Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) against Esquire journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Ryhs). A two-hander, the film delves into each of their contrasts and relishes in their constant collisions to create a showcase of clashing points of views about humanity, life and dealing with trauma. With impeccable production design that positions their stories as if it was taking place inside of Mr. Rogers’ TV set, the film constantly shifts between the glossy, cute-looking and endearing nature of Mr. Rogers’ show and Vogel’s grim realities. It’s an approach that works perfectly because it saves the film from several narrative pitfalls but also turns it into something much more reflective, touching and genuine instead of a sentimental, packaged studio product.
Headlined by one of Tom Hanks’ best performances and a fantastic Matthew Rhys, NEIGHBORHOOD hits all the right notes. While Rhys remarkably captures Vogel’s personality, Hanks delivers a deceptively simple yet layered performance that is as arresting in moments of silence as much as it’s enchanting when he steps into the studio, never attempting to imitate Rogers but to truly capture his soul.
Verdict: One of the year’s most creative, surprising and intelligent films, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is destined to be a big hit with commercial and arthouse crowds and a significant moment for Marielle Heller. An impressive film that is surely going to end up on countless best-of-the-year lists. A celebration of the ability of unique filmmaking to look at stories we think we know, only to then present us with unexpected layers.
This review is from the 44th Toronto International Film Festival. Sony/TriStar will release A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood on November 22.