As I walked out of a movie theater on a cold winter afternoon after seeing It's a Beautiful Day, I heard a couple remark how the film was a truly cathartic experience.
Cathartic as in the psychological release of emotions and feelings. Cathartic as in the way an outside influence -- be it a movie or television show, another person, something you read -- can make a profound effect on your life. That is truly powerful stuff.
Maybe that's to be expected when talking about Fred Rogers, the children's television host who awakened the consciousness of millions of adolescents who learned about being good to others, being active listeners, providing a helping hand and other axioms involved in being a better human being. While there was no catharsis in those lessons, they helped shape thoughts and emotions in a way that still resonates, maybe now more than ever.
But I was a bit conflicted myself. Maybe it's the jadedness in me, my more worldly sense that things don't always turn out the way we'd like in our own neighborhoods. Or maybe it was my sense that this movie had more on its mind that merely reminding us of important life lessons.
Director Marielle Heller -- whose previous film, Can You Forgive Me?, was a revelation in how good an actress Melissa McCarthy can be -- isn't making a film about Mr. Rogers' career in It's a Beautiful Day. This is no surfacey biopic of an American hero; there's been enough on screen already that does that well. Instead, she focuses on another jaded journalist, played by Matthew Rhys, who has a well of anger that has become a tent of red covering him and affecting his family and work.
Rhys plays a fictional character named Lloyd Vogel who is assigned by Esquire magazine to write a puff piece on Mister Rogers for a special heroes issue. But the investigative journalist in him wants to do more than merely sugarcoat the story. He has a reputation for toughness in his writing, and no one but Fred Rogers would agree to be interviewed by him for the special issue.
Tom Hanks plays Fred Rogers as a gentle man who is perhaps more complex than merely a spouter of amiable advice. Hanks excels at these types of characters, the truly nice man who can also turn a bit steely when faced with conflict. In this movie, that complexity is below the surface; Hanks is like a calm sea with layers of swirling water underneath.
Vogel asks Rogers' handler early in the film why he was selected by Rogers for the Esquire story. He is told that Mr. Rogers especially likes broken people. This is the first eyebrow-raising moment of the film when you know that it not merely a parable about goodness.
Heller brilliantly uses the miniature sets from Mister Rogers' neighborhood to great effect, moving from the toy trains and stores to the city apartment where Vogel lives. She has Vogel's face pop up in Mr. Rogers' picture board in one of the first scenes. It is not a happy face; Vogel looks to be as tormented as Ichabod Crane running from the headless horseman. He has become part of the neighborhood.
Rogers says that Vogel is having a hard time "forgiving the person who hurt him." That person is Vogel's father, who ran off and left his family as his mother was dying of cancer. Now, the father has returned for Vogel's sister's wedding, and Vogel's anger again bubbles to the surface. Played by Chris Cooper, Vogel's father is equal parts proud and wounded by his experience.
The movie warns of the dangers facing Vogel. Rogers says to no one in particular that a person can be "so angry you have to hurt someone or yourself." Vogel lashes out at his wife, who wants him to forgive his father, and is a mess. Meanwhile, Rogers is offering platitudes such as telling his audience that people need to find "positive ways to deal with their feelings."
This is where the movie becomes a bit subversive. Hanks plays Rogers as an enigma and not merely an inspirational children's figurehead. Vogel asks him if carrying the burden of being Mister Rogers is too difficult a load at times. Rogers deflects the question but does say that he is also human and must deal with his feelings. He swims laps, takes walks and bangs hard on piano keys when he's angry. He tells Vogel that one of his sons would not tell others that he was Rogers' son due to that burden.
Hanks subtly shows the ways that Rogers has his own anger issues. In several scenes, after rehearsal for his show, he sits at a studio piano and bangs on the keys with excessive force. In other scenes, his facial expressions are key to his character. When Vogel confronts him or when he is talking about anger, Hanks' face grows contorted and downcast. Heller's camera draws in close to his face in those scenes, refusing to shy away from revealing a public figure that may have his own doubts, if not demons.
Meanwhile, Vogel grows frustrated by Mister Rogers' inability to answer his questions. Instead, Rogers always wants to turn the conversation to Vogel and his plight. At one point, frustrated that he can't do his job, Vogel storms out of Rogers' New York City apartment when Rogers asks too many penetrating questions. He reminds Vogel at one point that "even when adults make plans, they don't always turn out the way we hoped." Just deal with it, he seems to say. Vogel has trouble swallowing that advice. .
Psychological traction is gained from a hallucinatory scene where Vogel becomes part of the show, donning rabbit ears that were once part of a childhood toy and appearing small while Rogers shows up as a giant who is almost threatening.
A key message of the film is not that anger is bad or that one needs to find their own cathartic release, even though both of those ideas are tossed about throughout the movie. Instead, again subtly, the film showcases the idea that it is OK to be sad and a bit angry but that there are gladder times that can balance the pain. The movie understands that feeling pain is to be human and that all of us must deal with our own sense of brokenness at times. But finding your way out of it is to use words and friendships instead of hurting others or yourself.
That is a powerful message that is imparted in a very special neighborhood and that might get to the heart of Mister Rogers' continuing allure. Cynicism and doubts are fine and make one a human. But finding a sense of relief -- and, yes, maybe a bit of catharsis -- can make you stronger and a better person more able to face challenges.
Or as Mister Rogers tells Vogel, "anything mentionable is manageable."