For those who haven’t managed to catch the exemplary doc Won’t You Be My Neighbor? or didn’t grow up Stateside with his lilting, gentle advice, Mr. Rogers may be at best a mystery and at worse, an irrelevance. But Can You Ever Forgive Me? director Marielle Heller expertly manages to satisfy both fans and the uninitiated alike with this warm, cosy hug of a film that chooses to celebrate the universal compassion the children’s TV presenter advocated rather than delve too deeply into what made him tick.
Establishing Rogers’ distinct brand straight out of the gate with an extended re-enactment of his folksy show, Heller provides an accessible primer from which to watch one man’s personal interaction with the small screen saint. Based on Tom Junod’s 2017 Esquire cover feature (‘Can you say... hero?' is worth a read), A Beautiful Day introduces us – via whimsical miniature sets – to life-worn journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) who’s estrangement from his boorish father (Chris Cooper) is impacting his ability to process childhood trauma and be fully present for his own infant son. A born cynic who prefers to write war reportage rather than profiles, he hardly seems the best hack to send to interview the famously joyous and genial Mr Rogers (Tom Hanks, wonderful) for Esquire’s Heroes issue. But, like Lloyd, when we meet Hank’s human definition of ‘nice’ – all soft cadence, twinkly eyes and hand-knitted sweaters – a sort of enchantment begins. How, Lloyd and we wonder, can a man be so delighted in the world? So patient? So kind? And in asking why there is such suspicion of sincerity, we’re forced to question why we as a society default to scepticism.
As Mr Rogers becomes a catalyst for Lloyd’s self-therapy and emotional healing, so Hank’s zen performance engenders a communal meditative experience. That’s particularly true of a powerful scene in a busy diner where Mr Rogers entreats Lloyd to complete a self-acceptance exercise of closing his eyes for a minute and thinking of "all the people who loved you into existence". As Lloyd complies, the diner falls silent and Hanks turns to gaze benignly down the lens, inviting audiences to step inside the screen to do the same.
If that sort of touchy-feely stuff makes you uncomfortable, a lot of A Beautiful Day may land as cutesy and hokey – merely a series of bumper sticker platitudes strung together with a daddy-issues narrative. There’s little in the way of exploration of what drives Mr. R, save for an admittance to sometimes banging to keys of a piano in frustration. So if an explanation of the enigma is your goal, the doc deals more in facts than feelings. But for those seeking comfort, kindness and a sense of cherishing in a turbulent world that seems to reward cruelty over caring, A Beautiful Day will be cinematic balm. Surrender to it and bring tissues.