Mr. Rogers biopic brings the trope of kindness to new depths

Scott Powell

Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is a good movie. It isn’t great; it isn’t spectacular; it doesn’t tear into the depths of your soul or wrench open the floodgates of your tear ducts. But just like its subject, the eternally kind and compassionate Fred Rogers, this simple goodness is precisely what makes the film nearly perfect.

The simplicity of “A Beautiful Day” shouldn’t be mistaken for shallowness. While a biopic about Mr. Rogers seems like it would be doomed to descend into the kind of dumb, flippant, feel-good fanfare that usually characterizes films of its type, what “A Beautiful Day” succeeds at, and professes such a unique and important understanding of, is the power and intensity of Rogers’ kindness.

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It doesn’t dumb it down into the kind of unintrusive brand of kindness widely accepted and practiced by our modern culture, which many people have mistaken Rogers’ reserved and friendly persona to be emblematic of.

His kindness wasn’t blind. It wasn’t something that he practiced simply because life had been good to him and had given him no reason to act otherwise. It was a focused, intentional action on his part: one that was driven by a willingness to fully embrace the pain and heartache of the human experience where others shied away from it. 

The kindness displayed by Rogers was powerful because it was intentional.”

This is a kindness that one rarely sees in the movies. While our culture openly recognizes and proclaims the kindness gospel, upholding it as the most sacred thing in the world, we can’t seem to conceptualize it as anything other than either a blind submission to the whims and fantasies of ourselves and those around us or a pleasant but impractical myth that can’t realistically serve as the driving force of our civilization, which therefore can only ever be a mask for deeper, darker, more destructive emotions.

But neither of these conceptions of kindness are sustainable. Thus, our proclaiming their power can only ever be an exercise in futility, one that ultimately leads us to reject — if not publicly, at least internally — the significant role kindness plays in our world and our understanding of one another. We simply don’t understand kindness well enough to believe in it.

This is what makes the film, and what made Rogers himself, so refreshing. They don’t present kindness as something that exists apart from the dark and painful realities and emotions of real life.

It’s not something that we exhibit once we have freed ourselves from our suffering, but rather something that can only be effective and meaningful when carried out in the midst of this suffering. 

It’s a simple concept to recognize, to understand and to appreciate, but it’s an intensely difficult one to actually live out because we are not naturally inclined to be kind in the midst of suffering, but rather to root out and destroy what we perceive to be causing us pain.

The kindness displayed by Rogers was powerful because it was intentional and because it required an intense amount of discipline and conscientiousness that most people are unwilling to engage with. But the movie recognizes this and makes an equally disciplined effort to convey it.

It isn’t a happy-go-lucky celebration of Mr. Rogers, patron saint of all-American niceness; it’s an exposition of the intensity and the intentionality that is necessary for the kindness he embodied to make a meaningful change in the world. It’s a dive into the much weightier base of the iceberg that Rogers’ calm, peaceful demeanor was merely the tip of.

This intentionality is captured perfectly in Tom Hanks’ exquisite portrayal of Rogers, which, like the rest of the film, soars above its lukewarm and mediocre potential. On the surface, Hanks is the perfect fit for the part. He’s our modern icon for the universal likability that Rogers embodied in his own time.

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Given this equivalency in the culture’s general attitude toward the two, it would have been easy for Hanks to mold Rogers into a mere extension of his own likable persona. But of course, this would only reassert the notion that kindness is the product of a specific emotional state and not an intentional action taken in response to our constantly fluctuating emotional states, as Rogers dedicated his life to explaining.

But Hanks doesn’t do this. He recognizes that Rogers’ kindness was something that was personal, that was layered and that was wholly unique to him. Another actor might see the simplicity of Rogers’ persona and turn the role into a simple imitation of that. But Hanks gives the character the discipline and intentionality he deserves, executing every pause, every smile, every shoe toss, every sweater change and every slight lift of the eyebrows with the utmost care and conscientiousness, so he’s likable not because he’s Hanks, but because he’s Mr. Rogers.

This is proof of Hanks’ ability to maintain the character’s sense of dignity even when his actions come off as silly. For example, one scene sees Rogers trying — and failing miserably — to set up a tent on his show. The camera lingers for about three minutes on him as he fumbles around with the pop-up shelter before finally stopping and conceding that “Maybe setting up a tent is a job best done by two adults.” It’s a funny moment and one that could have easily come off as a condescending mockery in the hands of a lesser actor.

Rather than simply presenting the events of the story as they occur, Heller crafts them together with a certain expressionistic charm.”

Yet the perseverance exhibited by Hanks throughout the scene — perseverance not for the sake of his own pride and the preservation of his image, but for the sake of completing his chosen task — imbues the scene with an authenticity and turns it into just another reminder of why the world loved Mr. Rogers. He was committed to seeing each of his goals through to fruition, no matter how silly that may have made him look.

Rogers wasn’t about trying to steer his young audience in any particular direction in terms of their accomplishments, but rather to preserve the mindset that all tasks set before us, even ones as simple as setting up a tent or listening to someone else when they’re speaking, are worth our time, attention and dedication. And this mindset shines through in Hanks’ performance.

In addition to the phenomenal acting, the film is also set apart by its whimsical, quirky aesthetics, which are a creative and unique diversion from the otherwise cut-and-dry family drama formula.

Rather than simply presenting the events of the story as they occur, Heller crafts them together with a certain expressionistic charm that imbues the tale with the simple, childlike imagination Rogers sought to promote through his Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

From Mr. Rogers’ meta-narration of the plot, to the scenic transitions depicted by scale model renderings of the film’s various locales like those that opened Rogers’ show every week, to a trippy dream sequence in which Matthew Rhys’ Lloyd Vogel finds himself shrunken down to the size of one of Rogers’ puppets and is made to share about his childhood trauma with a pair of fuzzy brown bunny ears sticking out of his head, the film’s visual and directorial style captures the same kind of light imagination on display in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.

In a world that is desperate for tangible, immediate answers to tangible, immediate problems, it can be hard to make a film about the simple power of individual kindness seem relevant. Yet “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” does exactly this, refusing to shy away from the painful, sometimes uncomfortable emotional weight that one must contend with in order for their kindness to be effective and meaningful.

Scotty Powell can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @scottysseus.