A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is a film suffused with emotion. When I think of an emotional film, my mind goes either to melodramas or exercises in stylistic excess. Marielle Heller’s third feature is neither. Its dramaturgy is straightforward: a journalist holds a grudge against his father and through an interview with a children’s entertainer, learns to forgive him. Hardly melodramatic. Equally, while Heller’s approach is not without style – which I’ll get to shortly – the emphasis is not on extravagance but simple, honest human experience.
The emotion at the heart of A Beautiful Day is more the lack of one. Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) isn’t an especially expressive individual. He’s an investigative journalist for Esquire possessed of sharp-edged cynicism and quick wit. Ah, but watch how he shuts down when he learns that his father (Chris Cooper) will be attending his sister’s wedding. It’s a reaction I immediately recognised. Plenty of films centred on the masculine repression of emotions, but I don’t think I’ve seen one explore the paralysing inability to engage with negative emotions. At least, until this film.
As we learn throughout the film, Lloyd has good reason to be angry with his father. What he lacks is the ability to engage with those emotions. The mere mention – or, worse, presence – of his father causes his to shut down. Unlike characters like Manchester by the Sea’s protagonist, it’s not – just – that he’s trying to compartmentalise harmful feelings. Rather, he’s well aware of the power of those feelings, and fears his ability to cope with them if he allowed them to be released. I’ve felt like that. That sense of impending pressure, like a garden hose about to explode, like a sinus infection of pure feeling.
A Beautiful Day understands that the solution to this feeling is simultaneously simple and impossible: just talk about it. Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) also understands that.
Full disclosure: I know next to nothing about Mr Rogers, nor his neighbourhood. His cultural omnipresence is limited to the States; beyond occasional references to sweaters and a couple episodes of Kidding, I was in the dark walking into this film. So I shared Lloyd’s scepticism when he met the man, the sense that his sunny demeanour and carefully-paced way of speaking were – to some degree, at least – a sham. A façade.
The miracle of Heller and Hanks’ work here is that they convince us of the benevolent reality of Mr Rogers, a man who’d be utterly unbelievable if he didn’t exist. The film is utterly enamoured of him, but shies away from hagiography (indeed, at once point the very-religious Rogers recoils from being compared to a saint). By adopting the accoutrements of Rogers’ program – right down to establishing shots crafted from childlike miniatures, and dream sequences that see Lloyd himself shrunk down to the size of a puppet – we’re drawn into the welcoming authenticity of Rogers’ existence.
None of this really gets to why this film is so impressive, though. It begins with Hanks as Rogers addressing the audience directly – as he did in his program – and as the film progresses we’re encouraged to reflect upon our own emotional journey. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I found it impossible not to relate to Lloyd’s emotional blockage. I might not remember the story of A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood a year from now, but I’ll remember how it made me feel. I’ll remember how it made me reflect upon my own traumas, my own angers, my own loves. It’s curious praise to note that a film makes you want to book a therapist’s appointment, but this is a curious film.