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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)


And…Dads’ Lives Matter. We have a new theme for the oldsters to contemplate from the other end of the age band tick boxes . And for those of us who occasionally complete on-line surveys and have to choose the one-box-off-death box, it’s nice to reflect on our domestic, emotional and societal contribution.

And here’s a film that gently exposes the need for Dads, the validation they supply, and the idiocy of running from the not-actively-insane ones. It’s grand, timely and fills a space in my head. As much an old US TV show, as the value of a world made of respect from and for generations of fathers: It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Or Neighbourhood. Aaahh, that feels better, Britishers.

Fred Rogers was a considered, empathetic, honest TV presenter in the US. Kids TV, which you can tell by the cheery way this film forgoes real externals for a model of said neighbourhood: all toy cars, buses, boats, roads, bridges and the like. Everything annoying about model villages is made filmic, lifting us into the welcome-kidlings performance tics of Mr Rogers. Generations of Americans adored him, felt welcomed by him, were seen when they needed to be seen by him.

So, what better than a grouchy, sour journalist to write an exposé on him? Matthew Rhys arrives as an avatar for a journalist who tried to produce such an exposé in the real world. Names are changed, many a detail, and undoubtedly some embarrassment. For Rhys’s composite Lloyd Vogel is known for take-downs in Esquire. He’s also on lousy terms with his Dad, exploding into a physical fight when Chris Cooper as the senior Jerry Vogel pitches up at Lloyd’s sister’s wedding. A social mistake, rage pours out and pauses – for explanations later. Lloyd has to meet a saint first.

So, situation set. We move into Mr Rogers’ world of puppetry and honesty. The secret is the calm truth of a difficult world being told – or sung – to kids. Be kind, explore the fear of life and death. That sort of thing. What’s fascinating is Tom Hanks‘ performance as Rogers: steady, starey and straight through to who you think you are. He and Vogel meet and a mutual examination begins. And you know from the off that Vogel isn’t going to find dirt and is very likely to have his rage fixed by Rogers. But there’s that performance again: Hanks is like a non-religious pastor: a master councillor, and with old skill to touch your vulnerability nerve. Rhys is thoroughly disconcerted by this, and it’s impressive to watch the take-down working the wrong way.

For Rhys’s Vogel is curious and a bit fierce in his focus. The anger is near. The stresses own him: angry at Dad, dead Mum, wonderful wife (Susan Kelechi Watson is every inch a modern partner) but in the white heat of having a newborn. The Dad issue is the thing, though, and when Chris Cooper pitches up again with his second wife it comes clear he abandoned young Lloyd with a terminally ill first wife. She died screaming.

And that, oldsters and wrinkly middlers, is everything. Who doesn’t need the warm embrace of a a childhood hero when life kills a parent? Old Jack here buried himself in Crazy Gang films. Of course, Flanagan and Allen didn’t trap me in my living room with puppets and songs to draw out my inadequacies. Hanks shows no such kindness to Vogel. And an exposé clearly isn’t the story…

Also – lest this all sound too wanky – it’s warmly done. Hanks is terrific if a bit trapped in Rogers: there’s a piano clang near the end that balances a comment from his wife, Maryann Plunkett‘s Joanne Rogers: he gets angry too, but manages it. You can almost sense the actor demanding release from framing Vogel’s story. Rhys, meanwhile, owns the film: his journey through angry hack to his Dad’s sickbed, with a ton of shouting, parenting and adulting with his wife, holds you to the end.

Not a kids film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood pulls a clever move on Americans. It’s like Uncle Bulgaria love-slapping my boy Steve into bringing me a juicy burger after a tart Christmas snark about vegetarian turkey. It covers off the oldster guilt, the middler torment and leaves you hoping for a peacemaker in every family.

It’s good.

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