Whenever I read or watch something about Mister Rogers, I feel the same way I do whenever I watch 13 Going on 30 (which, for the record, is quite often). The scene where grown-up Jenna (Jennifer Garner) realizes how much of a mess she’s made of her adult life, returns to her empty childhood home and cries in her basement closet, all while Billy Joel’s “Vienna” plays, always leaves me bawling. But it’s only later in the movie when the character articulates the sentiment behind why she, and us, were crying: “I think we all wanna feel something that we’ve forgotten or turned our backs on, because maybe we didn’t realize how much we were leaving behind.”
We live in a culture that facilitates what can only be described as “growing up too fast.” We grow up idolizing adults, the “grown-ups,” because they seem so glamorous and mature—like they have everything figured out. They’re our superheroes, and we all have that moment when we realize the superheroes in our lives—your parents, maybe—aren’t superheroes at all. They’re just people, just like you, figuring it out as they go, messing up accordingly, and making the rest up as they go. But one thing we forget to mention about “growing up too fast” is that we often also leave our feelings behind too fast: we leave our emotional tendencies in childhood, where we think they belong, because they will slow us down in adulthood. This is one of the only ways we are taught that becoming an adult is attainable—forgetting our feelings exist.
Mister Rogers, however, believed otherwise.
The new film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood stars Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers and Matthew Rhys as Lloyd Vogel, an Esquire journalist assigned to profile Rogers for an upcoming issue on heroes (the film is loosely based on the Esquire article “Can You Say…Hero?” by Tom Junod, published in 1998). The narrative film follows the Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? from last summer, and the biography The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King, published last fall—all contributing to somewhat of a Mister Rogers renaissance in current pop culture. Rogers’ landmark children’s program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, aired on PBS from 1968 to 2001.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood might be marketed partially as a Mister Rogers biopic, but that’s far from the case. The film is more about Rhys’ character, Lloyd, loosely based on Tom Junod. Lloyd is a jaded, pessimistic workaholic whose reputation as a journalist is steadily declining: Fred Rogers was the only person on Esquire’s list of heroes who agreed to be interviewed by Vogel, since word had gotten around that Lloyd’s work—in the words of Bill Isler (Enrico Colantoni), the president of Mister Rogers’ production company—lacks humanity. It also becomes clear that it is not only Lloyd’s work that lacks humanity: during their initial interview on the Mister Rogers set in Pittsburgh, Lloyd asks Rogers the difference between Fred and Mister Rogers, the character he plays on TV. It is then that we learn that Lloyd has veered so far off the path of himself that only Mister Rogers can be the one to help him find his way back.
Lloyd Vogel, portrayed in a masterclass of emotion by Matthew Rhys, is the epitome of the cold emptiness of adult life that we are often driven to. Becoming an adult, as we learn through the lens of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, is learning how to feel nothing at all. Feelings are difficult, time-consuming, and easy to suppress. They are messy, distracting, and unprofessional. Feelings are childlike. In order to survive adult life, a small part of all of us subconsciously learns how to suppress the parts of ourselves that are too emotional and feel too much, because we know they will hold us back. There’s a certain assumption that we are expected to outgrow those overemotional parts of ourselves—but we never do. We just suppress them and suppress them until they are hidden so far back in the dark corners of our psyches that we practically forget they exist. That is, until Mister Rogers reminds us that we never should have left those parts of ourselves behind in the first place.
In the midst of being assigned to interview Mister Rogers, unresolved issues in Lloyd’s personal life are coming to the surface: his father (Chris Cooper) that abandoned him, his sister, and their dying mother as children reappears in his life, attempting to seek forgiveness. He is also a new father himself, having an infant son named Gavin with his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson). It appears that Lloyd has spent the better part of his adult life outrunning his unresolved feelings from childhood which has inevitably resulted in a cold, icy exterior that indeed lacks humanity (when he tells Andrea he’s been assigned to profile Mister Rogers, she begs him not to ruin her childhood). But just being on the set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood evokes such an emotional reaction in Lloyd, bringing about this inability to forgive the past. With anybody else, his stiff, humanity-lacking personality flies. But within minutes of speaking with Mister Rogers, Lloyd’s flawed coping mechanisms begin to come crumbling down.
Lloyd, like many of us, throws himself into his work whenever he starts to feel overwhelmed by his feelings. Work, which can provide money, stability, and somewhat of a sense of fulfilment, is an easy way to suppress how we are feeling because our work is what we know, and it’s so much easier to focus on what we know than what we don’t. But this time, Lloyd’s work means talking to Mister Rogers—who wants him to talk about his feelings. In a captivating performance by Tom Hanks, reminiscent of his portrayal of Walt Disney in 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks, Mister Rogers wants him to remember what it was like to be a child, and to pass on that grace to his own son. He wants him to be able to forgive the past. Most importantly, at one point in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, he stops and asks Lloyd to spend a full minute thinking about the people who have “loved him into being.” In any other movie, we would have been treated to flashback scenes of his traumatic childhood, but A Beautiful Day goes silent for a full minute during a restaurant scene, similar to a scene in the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, asking us all to spend a silent minute thinking about all who have loved us and who we have loved in return. It feels like an eternity while you’re watching a movie, and that’s precisely the point: we all become so unaccustomed to spending just a minute of silence alone with ourselves, especially in adulthood.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is just as unconventional and radical as Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was, and that is also entirely the point. It’s not a movie about Mister Rogers per se, but more a movie made for adults that attempts to convey the skills and wisdom that Fred Rogers dedicated his life to teaching children. Mister Rogers’ secret was that the skills and wisdom weren’t specific or restricted to childhood—they just require letting yourself feel a certain amount of feelings that adults spend most of their lives trying to unlearn. But as long as we take the time to listen, learn, and always be committed to the possibility of bettering ourselves, Mister Rogers’ wisdom will never go out of style.