The public’s reverence for the children’s entertainer Fred Rogers has only increased since the release of the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? last year, and yet the many tributes to his saintliness leave something out. That’s not to argue that Mister Rogers had some hidden dark side—he was simply human like the rest of us, fallible, subject to mood swings. He didn’t magically exude decency; he worked at being decent. Marielle Heller’s new film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, foregrounds that effort. Though it’s not a straightforward portrait of Rogers (played by Tom Hanks), casting him as a supporting character in another man’s story, the film is firmly focused on the TV host’s tangible kindness rather than his celebrity.
Three films into her directorial career, Heller is displaying a skill for unconventional biopics. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) incorporated animation into a vibrant live-action rendering of the artist Phoebe Gloeckner’s semiautobiographical graphic novel of sex and adolescence. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) was a darkly sympathetic portrayal of the author Lee Israel and her unconventional life of crime. Now A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood approaches a legendary cultural figure from an unlikely angle, adapting a 1998 Esquire article by Tom Junod that recounted how the author’s initial skepticism of Rogers developed into a close friendship. The film finds Rogers near the end of his life, considering his legacy in an entertainment world that largely dismayed him, which might be perfectly suitable material for a movie about the man. Instead, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood shows Rogers as a counselor and friend whose angelic aura is generated by his actual behavior.