A Beautiful Day in The Neighbourhood (PG)
The opening 10 minutes of this curious, feelgood film had me wondering what I was watching: a low-budget musical? A spoof of children's television? A cheesy portrait of a totally unbelievable man? But then as the narrative settled into its groove, I realised it was all of these, with some human drama and magical realism thrown in for good measure. If it sounds messy, it is.
Yet somehow the film works and, with a brilliantly controlled performance from Tom Hanks, it offers a timely message that there was - or maybe still is - an alternative to our cynical, fractured, self-centered way of being in the world.
Hanks plays Fred Rogers who created and hosted the children's television show Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood, which ran for more than 30 years in North America. A shy, quiet man, Rogers dedicated himself to helping children deal with emotional issues using puppets, song and his calming demeanour. We open on the set of the show, with mechanical moving cityscapes and Hanks singing a welcome song while he dons a cardigan and soft shoes. The production design evokes 1980s public television and everything seems dreadfully hokey.
But you slowly realise that director Marielle Heller is carefully threading another storyline through this bizarre world. Rodgers introduces us to his friend Lloyd (Mathew Rhys) who is going through a tough time, and the project of the film becomes clear. Lloyd is a cynical, busy, investigative journalist who enjoys exposing the dirt on his subjects.
He's been asked to write what he considers to be a puff piece on Rogers as part of a series on American Heroes. At home, his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) takes time off from being a successful lawyer to care for their newborn son.
Lloyd should be home more frequently. He also has issues with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) who turns up drunk at a family wedding. The battlelines of the narrative are drawn very clearly: on one side is Rogers and his collection of well-worn puppets and TV characters (like Daniel Striped Tiger and Lady Aberlin), and on the other is Lloyd, a stand-in for all of us with our busy lives and our nagging everyday personal challenges. It's a delight to watch the clash.
Charismatic real-life characters make good Oscar bait (think Winston Churchill and David Helfgott to name two) and Hanks is in the running for a best supporting actor gong. But it's Rhys and Cooper who do the heavy lifting, not an easy task with a script that clearly flags the overly constructed emotional beats.
The story is based on the experience that journalist Tom Junod went through in writing Can you say....Hero? for Esquire magazine back in 1998, although screenwriters Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue invent the family life that provides much of the human drama.
As director, Heller manages to create and wrangle an extraordinary world where make-believe and an unshakeable faith in the goodness of life combine to overcome the worst the universe can throw at us.
She seems to be continuing Rogers' mission, and the strange out-of-placeness of the movie points to just how far our frenetic world has shifted from Rogers' idealised neighbourhood, where there's time to respect everyone and their feelings.
Fred Rogers died back in 2003 and his middle name was McFeely (who was also a character on the show). It's about the best word I can find to describe the experience of watching this movie: very, very McFeely.