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Feeling neighborly

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After the wild success of "Won't You Be My Neighbor?," Morgan Neville's 2018 documentary about the life of beloved children's entertainer Fred Rogers, it's not surprising that Hollywood studios wanted their own crack at telling Rogers' story. And who can blame them? Especially these days, who wouldn't want another chance to appreciate a man who exemplified the very best humanity could offer?

So it's a bit of a surprise to discover that "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" isn't really about Mister Rogers at all. Rather than making a traditional biopic chronicling the life of Fred Rogers, director Marielle Heller ("Can You Ever Forgive Me?") crafts a film that seeks to embody the lessons he taught us. Sweet-natured without being sappy, it's a touch stranger and more idiosyncratic than you'd expect, and it's all the better for it.

Inspired by journalist Tom Junod's 1998 Esquire profile on Fred Rogers, "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" is about the real-life friendship that resulted from their meetings, a relationship that altered the writer's life in ways both big and small.

We meet jaded, professionally ruthless magazine writer Lloyd Vogel (Emmy winner Matthew Rhys). When his editor at Esquire assigns him a short profile about Mister Rogers for an issue all about heroes, Lloyd reacts cynically. He's dismissive of what he can't help feeling is a puff piece, far beneath the abilities he's honed over years of hard-hitting investigative work.

Lloyd approaches the interview with skepticism, looking for cracks in Rogers' endlessly patient and kind demeanor, making no attempt to hide a hope that he'll discover demons lurking beneath the Mister Rogers persona, that it is indeed a persona, and Fred Rogers the man isn't so saintly as he's made out to be. No one can be that good.

We also see Lloyd dealing with an anger he's been holding onto most of his life, directed mostly at his estranged father (Chris Cooper) who's now making efforts to reconnect and be a part of Lloyd's life again, shortly after the birth of his own son. As he continues to meet and talk with Fred, he finds himself disarmed, and he slowly and gradually lets his guard down.

Rhys is quite good, playing Vogel as both hardened and deeply vulnerable. But while Lloyd is the film's protagonist, Fred Rogers is the film's heart. An impersonation is clearly not what Heller was after in casting a huge movie star like Tom Hanks in the role.

It's perhaps not surprising that Hanks — an actor who throughout his career has exuded decency, both on screen and off — is up to the task of portraying the icon. Hanks radiates goodness, and we know he can convey warmth and decency like few other actors on screen.

He delivers an understated performance that doesn't attempt an impersonation, but succeeds in capturing the essence of Fred Rogers. His mannerisms are characterized by a certain stillness, and he speaks with a deliberate, slightly stilted delivery as though carefully considering every word he says before it leaves his lips. His kind, searching eyes convey deep reservoirs of empathy.

He speaks with intention, letting whoever he's speaking with sense that he's completely invested in their well-being; that there's nothing more important to him than the conversation they're having right now.

Sure, the plot is a rather conventional story about a man dealing with a fraught relationship with his father. But the script, by writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, is often moving as it becomes a story about letting go of anger, about facing this difficult world with kindness and compassion. Incidentally, for me it's also a very relatable story about a journalist going wildly over his assigned word count.

Heller works in delightfully surreal flourishes: a moment that breaks the fourth wall, establishing shots using miniatures in the "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" style, or dropping Rhys into a fantasy version of the show.

As Lloyd learns not to hide from his feelings, it's hard not to see the film acknowledging how many of the problems we're facing stem from people (and men in particular) not being able to deal with their emotions. Many see Fred Rogers as a hero. He's also just a man, as complicated and multi-faceted as any of us. And that's exactly what made him so inspiring.

Mister Rogers never pretended that there wasn't any bad in the world, but he told us what really mattered was how we respond to it. It's not always easy to be kind; it's hard to forgive. But even at a time when basic decency seems to be a foreign concept, compassion is still possible.

"A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" is a story about the real work it takes to manage one's emotions, and be considerate of others. Mister Rogers was able to make us see the world differently. That for everything wrong with the world and the people in it, we can't all be so bad. He remains a beacon of hope and optimism in our current grim reality, and in its own way Heller's film becomes that too. It's the most truly feel-good movie I've seen this year.