A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
How does one tell a story about Mister Rogers? Fred Rogers was by all accounts one of the most compassionate, loving human beings to have ever lived, and nobody (the occasional Fox News segment aside) had anything negative to say about him. That’s great when you’re looking for a role model, but puts some limitations on the opportunities you have for drama. Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood accomplishes this task by telling the story of a man who met Fred Rogers and whose life was changed by the friendship that resulted (the story, while fictionalized, was suggested by Tom Junod’s article “Can You Say… Hero?” published in Esquire).
Matthew Rhys stars as Lloyd Vogel, a cynical and emotionally absent journalist who is assigned a profile of Fred Rogers as part of the magazine’s issue about heroes. Lloyd speaks to Rogers first on the phone and later in person on the set of his television show, and seems positively dumbfounded by how genuine and nice Rogers is. Vogel, as a journalist, is more used to muckracking stories and deconstructing the images of the people he interviewed (it is noted at one point that Vogel was assigned Rogers because nobody else would agree to speak to him). Vogel tries to ask probing questions that he thinks will get beneath Rogers’ skin, and Rogers turns the tables by asking questions to Vogel, not as a manipulative tactic, but out of genuine concern. It doesn’t take long before Rogers realizes Vogel has deep-seated issues involving his father (Chris Cooper) that are impacting his life, including his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) and their new son.
Tom Hanks plays Fred Rogers, and while the makeup and hairstyling is more supplemental than transformative, there are still moments when he captures the physicality and presence of Mister Rogers to an uncanny degree. Emotionally, he’s perfect. There’s no grand strategy to what Rogers does, it’s something he’s good at and passionate about. At one point, Vogel asks Rogers repeatedly about what he sees as the emotional burden a man like Rogers must have from listening to and responding to the troubles of so many children. Rogers sidesteps the questions, instead deciding to show Vogel his puppets or remind him of some lessons he learned. The cyclical nature and the audience, but eventually you get it: Rogers understand the pressure that comes with what he does, but it doesn’t get to him because to him it’s not a burden. It’s his job to help people find ways to manage their emotions in constructive and healthy ways, and listening is a huge part of that. Anybody who has worked in mental health can see what Hanks’s Rogers is doing – he’s using active listening and validation to get Lloyd to understand that the questions Lloyd is asking are as much about him as they are about Rogers.
That’s not to say the movie is nothing but a battle of wits – far from it. Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me) ensures there is plenty of comedy to liven up the proceedings, and uses delightful Rogers-esque miniatures to indicate a change of scenery. The music composed by Nate Heller is also a highlight, finding the right tune or song for every scene. The art direction and costuming also do a wonderful job of recreating the set of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, and Heller and Hanks are clearly having a blast when they remind the audience just how much work went into the show.
Fred Rogers understood that it’s not easy to be a good person. Being compassionate and thoughtful is hard work, and many people instead lead to callousness and insensitivity because it’s easier for them. Perhaps the most insightful thing said about Fred Rogers comes from his wife Joanne (Maryann Plunkett); when Vogel asks her what it’s like to be married to a saint, she says she always disliked that word, because calling someone like Rogers a saint creates a sense that what he does is unattainable. Rogers is a good person because he knows he can be, and the movie makes it clear he did so even when it was emotionally adverse for him. Of course he did – he’s as human as the rest of us. And if Fred Rogers can continue to be a good neighbor no matter what happened, maybe we can, too.
Hearts and Bones
Hearts and Bones is the sort of movie that is better than it could have been, but still not as good as it should have been. The feature fictional debut of Australian filmmaker Ben Lawrence, the movie stars Hugo Weaving as a photojournalist whose decades of shooting warzones and other high-risk areas have left him suffering from emotional and physical trauma. His emotional state is not helped when he learns that his partner Josie (Hayley McElhinney) is pregnant. The memory of the loss of a child years earlier and Dan’s paranoia that it may happen again creates another bit of pressure that pushes his emotional state to the breaking point. That’s when he meets Sebastian.
Sebastian (Andrew Luri) is a Sudanese immigrant who heard an interview with Dan on the radio and decides to seek him out, telling Dan that he believes they can help each other. Sebastian has formed a choir with other immigrants and refugees who have faced trauma and they use their music as a way to cope – would Dan be interested in photographing them? At first, Dan is resistant to the idea but then he attends some of their rehearsals and becomes charmed by the group. He and Sebastian become fast friends.
From that plot description nobody would blame you for assuming the story follows the well-worn plot of the white savior/magical negro trope we’ve seen from Driving Miss Daisy to Green Book and countless others. But Ben Lawrence’s screenplay has more layers to it than you might expect. One of the reason Sebastian approached Dan in the first place is because one of Dan’s projects was to document a massacre in Sebastian’s own village, and after they grow to trust each other Sebastian asks Dan to not use any of those photographs in an upcoming exhibition he is planning. Sebastian is trying to forget his trauma – he doesn’t even talk to his wife about it. Dan initially accepts, but as the two men look deeper into the images both shocking discoveries are made and disturbing secrets are uncovered.
Parallels between Dan and Sebastian abound – both men have pregnant wives, both men have loss in their backgrounds, and both try to find meaning through art. The most interesting dynamic between the two men is that of memory – due to the repeated head trauma Dan has suffered, he can’t remember shooting Sebastain’s village, while Sebastain himself is trying his best to forget or bury those memories. Weaving and Luri play this symbiotic relationship of sorts with such warmth and humanity that the pain which comes when we realize not all of the stories being told are true feel all the sharper.
The movie doesn’t fully transcend the limitations of its genre, though, and Lawrence sometimes has difficulty balancing the various plot threads, such as when one revelation from Dan’s photographs seems to be setting up a major plot shift, but ends up being mostly forgotten until the end after another revelation is made. Even the singing group falls by the wayside once Dan and Sebastian begin examining the photos. Overall, though, it’s a good first effort by Ben Lawrence, and he shows definite skill with actors and visual variety in a mostly dialogue-driven story. I am eager to see what he does next.
Bring Me Home
In the introduction to this movie, director Kim Seung-woo pointed out that this film doesn’t open in his native Korea for several months, and as such requested revelations of plot be kept to a minimum. I’m going to do my best to abide by the director’s wishes, suffice to say that Bring Me Home is an excellent debut, showing inventiveness in storytelling, strong development of characters, and a willingness to take the story in directions the audience does not expect. Bring Me Home is a captivating, at times brutal thriller about the lengths a mother will go to to find and protect her child.
The movie stars Lee Young-ae (in her first film appearance since Park Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance) as Jung-yeon, an ER nurse whose son disappears and remains missing for years while she and her husband try to find him. The trauma of losing a child, compounded by other accidents and abuses that occur over the course of the movie seem to be turning Jung-yeon into a shell of a human, and yet she still maintains hope that she will be able to find her son. She knows it’s possible because a friend of hers was kidnapped as a youth but still managed to make hit home where as an adult he tries to reunite missing children with their families (although way his own story goes… well, you’ll have to watch the movie itself to find out). Knowing that the survival and return of her child is a possibility, Jung-yeon will fight against corruption, criminality, inclement weather, and even what seems to be fate itself to reunite with her son, because that’s what mothers do.
The complicated and disturbing story is made comprehensible with a first-rate cast, all of whom make their characters instantly recognizable and distinctive. We jump from one group of characters to another, not always knowing exactly what’s going on, but by the end we know exactly what the stakes are and where the morality lies. Kim Seung-woo has made something very special here, and I welcome his new voice on the international stage.