Image courtesy of imdb.com
Having grown up in Britain in the 00s, my knowledge of Mr Rogers as a cultural icon has always been fairly low. Thanks to the recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and now this fictionalised film, I have gained some very real appreciation of why he is still regarded with such affection. Rogers, with his moth-eaten puppets and woolly sweaters occupies a highly beloved position in American life, and as an onscreen personality had a great public profile as a children’s entertainer and spiritual leader to the nation’s children.
This profile was augmented by such articles as the one this film was based on and the writing of which it dramatizes, following feature writer Lloyd Vogel as, while attempting to process his complicated, angry relationship with his father, is assigned to do an interview with Rogers. Initially dismissive of Rogers' wholesomeness, he begins to find his life enriched by being around him.
It's a strange exercise as a film as it isn't really about Rogers at all, he is the impact character from whom our protagonist learns, with the bulk of the film's story taken up by Lloyd's family drama. Rogers instead acts as the embodiment of the film's stance on its themes, which are largely about living well, letting go of your anger and dealing with your emotions in a constructive manner. The film won't disappoint those who are just looking to spend time with national treasure Tom Hanks playing dress-up as national treasure Fred Rogers, but he's not the main character and isn't in the film that much. I thoroughly enjoyed the family drama but the film has that strangely surreal tone of when a celebrity enters the room, felt especially strongly as Hanks is the only real big name in the cast, with the marginal exception of the ever underrated Chris Cooper as Lloyd's deadbeat father.
Director Marielle Heller has proven with her three films, all of which I have loved, that she has an unerring hand with actors, production design, editing and cinematography, producing detailed and empathetic productions, usually knowing exactly how much flourish is needed to accentuate a particular moment. The film makes a few missteps with a couple of dream sequences that I honestly really struggled to either take as seriously or with as much good humour as the film wished of me, pushing that surreal tone past breaking, but the film mostly nails the important stuff. The emotional drama as Lloyd works out his father issues are well handed and Matthew Rhys gives an honestly fantastic performance showing the intense and unfamiliar emotions Lloyd is feeling with very little dialogue. I adore films where the most potent moments are the ones without, or with very few words, and there are scenes here where Rhys gives heartbreaking soliloquies without uttering a sound.
As with Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the scenes of the show are immeasurably charming, impeccably recreated here and played by Hanks who never turns in a bad performance and has been given a gift of a role here, with Rogers's slow, measured, autumnal delivery intoning words of simple homespun wisdom to our lost hero. The Daniel puppet is a consistent delight as well.