'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood' movie still

From left, Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys star in the new film "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood."

"Hello, neighbor."

Those two simple words are eternally married to the memory of America's most beloved public TV personality, who never spoke them much louder than a whisper. Marielle Heller's new film, "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," takes place in the late 1990s, nearly three decades into Fred Rogers' career. It's hardly hyperbolic to say that at this point everyone knows and adores Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks) — he can't even ride the New York subway without fellow passengers, to his delight, forming a makeshift chorus to sing his theme song.

He's America's uncontested sweetheart, and Lloyd Vogel is out to dethrone him.

A magazine writer who's unable, or perhaps unwilling, to make peace with his own tragic and heartbreaking family history, Lloyd (Matthew Rhys) has become reputed as a fearsome, doggedly cynical chronicler of everything that's wrong with the world. It's this reputation that leads his editor to assign him a 400-word puff piece profiling Rogers, about whom it seems nobody can say one negative word. When Lloyd tells his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), of his assignment, she simply responds, "Don't ruin my childhood."

Determined to detect a crack in Rogers' squeaky-clean veneer, Lloyd finds his subject to be even more whimsical, more loquacious and somehow more caring than his on-screen persona. So when Lloyd, mid-interview, lets slip about his tumultuous relationship with his absent father (Chris Cooper), Rogers turns the tables on him. Suddenly Lloyd is the one being questioned, challenged by his subject to test the daunting waters of forgiveness and reconciliation. This isn't the Fred Rogers story — it's the inner journey of a person to whom, as to so many others, Rogers lent a helping hand.

And it works surprisingly well. Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster's script, loosely based on a 1998 Esquire profile by Tom Junod, takes a largely unconventional approach by making this biopic's central figure a supporting character. Those wishing to see Rogers' life chronicled from boyhood onward will be inevitably taken off guard, maybe even disappointed, by this choice. But if you go in with an open mind, you'll see a film that understands that a person's legacy and deeply permeating affect on others can be just as interesting and poignant as his or her origins.

Hanks — one American golden boy smartly cast as another — unsurprisingly thrives during his limited screen time. Aided by very minimal makeup and hairstyling, the actor masterfully embodies Rogers by doing some of his most effectively unassuming work, replicating his character's soft affectations and careful movements with ease. Still, Rhys is rarely outshined in his lead role as Junod's fictional counterpart, conveying a deep frailty shrouded in layers of contempt and reluctance.

To add even further to her film's idiosyncratic nature, Heller presents much of the movie through a fantastical lens that pays homage to "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and even sometimes leans into psychedelic territory. Unfortunately, these risky stylings fall flat on occasion, violating the line between original and jarring. The attempt to subvert biopic norms is at least admirable, but the film's unique, Lloyd-driven narrative is more than enough to take care of that.

Still, the out-of-place theatrics do little to sabotage what makes this film so memorable: its firm belief that, ultimately, it's good to forgive. Rogers and his indiscriminately acceptive spirit are alive and vocal here, urging viewers to let go of grudges, shirk self-importance and do the hard thing by opting for a little kindness.

He may be 16 years gone, but the world still needs Fred Rogers. In his absence, movies like "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" will have to do.

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Rating: 4/5

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John Battiston, who screened "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" at the 2019 Middleburg Film Festival, is a Times-Mirror reporter and founder of the Reel Underdogs podcast. Contact him at jbattiston@loudountimes.com. Reel Underdogs is not affiliated with the Times-Mirror.

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