Tom Hanks does not lack guts. The opening sequence of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” in which Hanks plays the beloved kiddie-show host Fred Rogers, is a faithful re-creation of the beginning of an episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
This means Hanks must approximate the voice and manner of one of the most familiar figures in TV history, right at the top of the movie. We’ll all be judging. No pressure at all.
It takes a minute to adjust, but Hanks has it down. It’s not an impersonation — in many ways he’s still Tom Hanks — but his gestures are right, and his voice slows down to Mr. Rogers’ pleasant sincerity. For the rest of the movie, this is Fred Rogers.
It’s a fascinating process to watch, and although Hanks is only on screen for maybe half the movie, his presence is felt throughout. The film even slows down to a pleasant Fred Rogers pace, a nice break from the hurry of most 21st-century movies.
You read that right: Mr. Rogers isn’t on screen for half the movie. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is based on a magazine article by Tom Junod, and it’s the journalist’s story we follow.
It’s fictionalized, so Junod is now called Lloyd Vogel (an unsentimental performance by Matthew Rhys, from “The Americans”), an Esquire writer known for his cynical approach. Lloyd has a wife (Susan Kelechi Watson, from “This Is Us”) and a new baby, but not much makes him happy.
Vogel goes to Pittsburgh to profile Mr. Rogers just after getting into a fistfight with his father (Chris Cooper), a man he deeply resents. When he shows up on the set of the “Neighborhood,” he’s still got a black eye.
The remainder of the movie traces the somewhat mysterious interest Fred Rogers takes in Lloyd — and how Mr. Rogers’ piercing sense of goodness begins to crack the writer’s protective layer. This story (written by Micha Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster) unfolds in ways that are not especially surprising.
If the story follows a formula, the movie itself is distinctive. Unusual touches (the entire film is framed as though it’s a slightly grainy episode of the TV series) and striking moments make for a memorable, and sometimes moving, experience.
You get the feeling director Marielle Heller (who did “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” last year) took her cue from Fred Rogers’ directness. At times Mr. Rogers will be speaking through one of his well-worn puppets (perhaps he was a person who found his voice by speaking through alter egos), and Heller will cut to a huge close-up of Daniel, the bashful tiger. As though Daniel is waiting for us to say something, or gazing into our soul.
There’s a wonderful scene in a diner, as Mr. Rogers suggests that he and Vogel sit through a minute of silence, and reflect on what they feel grateful for. Heller lets the minute play out, so the movie audience has to sit through a minute of silence — so strange in a film — and think, or reflect, or just be quiet.
What really puts it over is Hanks, doing a wonderful balancing act. He’s willing to let Mr. Rogers be somewhat enigmatic, and yet his performance suggests that doing good is a choice, and an effort. It’s that very thing that makes Fred Rogers’ example so admirable.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (3½ stars)
Tom Hanks does a marvelous balancing job as Fred Rogers, the host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” even if he’s only in half the movie. The rest of the film, inspired by a true story, is about a journalist (Matthew Rhys) whose cynical manner is softened when he profiles Rogers. Director Marielle Heller puts enough distinctive touches into this story to make it something special.
Rating: PG, for subject matter
Opening Friday: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre Mountlake Terrace, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Meridian, Seattle 10, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor Plaza