My husband and I decided on a whim last night to go see the biopic about Fred Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
We live in a tiny town with only one three-screen theater. Sometimes I wonder how they stay open — it must be a labor of love, because sometimes we’re alone in the building. Period. In any of the three theaters.
That’s what it was like last night. Just us and one teenage boy selling tickets and popcorn. No one else braved the cold and slushy rain.
Two things surprised me right away.
The first was that Tom Hanks doesn’t disappear into the part of Mister Rogers. I expected him to — but all I saw was the actor when he stepped on screen. His voice is so distinctive and he just sounded like Tom Hanks trying to sound like Fred Rogers, if that makes sense.
So I had a weird moment, right at the beginning, of . . . no, that’s not Mister Rogers. And of course, it isn’t. What a silly thing to be disappointed by. But there was a moment of cognitive dissonance as the movie started where it just felt wrong.
That smoothed out though and even though Tom Hanks never did disappear into the roll for me, I stopped expecting him to.
The other thing that surprised me was how important Pittsburgh was to the movie. I knew, of course, that Pittsburgh is Mister Roger’s neighborhood, but it was fun to see it.
The movie itself, isn’t really a biopic about Mister Rogers. Or at least not only. It’s a movie about the journalist who wrote this Esquire article about him, Tom Junod. Much of the dramatic story about the journalist in the film (who has a different name) was invented for the movie. I thought that it was done, though, in such a way that it felt real.
The story didn’t happen in real life the way it unfolded on the screen, but there was a sense that it could have. Almost like the movie was an amalgamation of Mister Roger’s stories or a representation of the man in general.
My biggest take away from the movie was that it did an excellent job of showing Fred Rogers as a real person. There was a scene where the reporter asked him to talk about the difference between ‘Fred Rogers’ the man and ‘Mister Rogers’ the character and he just looks at him like he’s suddenly started speaking Pig Latin.
He really was genuinely kind and calm and soft-spoken. He really did believe that teaching children that they’re special and important is work that needs to be done in the world.
But he was also intense and a little odd. He asked personal questions that maybe he shouldn’t have. He made adults wait while he talked to children. He was maybe a little too into his puppets. He had a difficult relationship, sometimes, with his sons.
And he had, and still has (even after his death), a unique ability to make a person feel seen and valid. His voice is intensely calming and sincere. His energy is low-key, but not passive at all. In fact, it’s an incredibly active energy.
I imagine it must have been something unique, to have that tuned into you.
I don’t know that anyone could have disappeared into the roll of Mister Rogers for me. Maybe an unknown actor? But even then I would have known. I would know that voice anywhere. That face.
I grew up the oldest of nine kids and when I had my own first child, my youngest brother was just starting kindergarten. I watched Mister Roger’s Neighborhood for longer and maybe more often than most adults, even those who grew up with him on PBS.
As a little girl, I was particularly drawn into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. The idea that there was a whole other world just around the corner got me. Even as an adult, the sight of a trolley triggers my imagination.
Even as a teenager, I watched with my younger brothers. And even then, the message that my feelings mattered, that I mattered, was important. Not in any profound, obvious way. But in an internalized way that I believe has stayed with me through my life.
The journalist in the film sets out to expose Mister Rogers — to prove that he’s not really who he seems to be. Instead, he’s the one who is changed. His wife asks him, at the beginning of the movie, not to ruin his childhood by tearing up one of her heroes.
After Mister Roger’s died, for a long time I winced whenever I saw his name in the news. Please, please don’t let some horrible thing come out about him. Of course, it never did.
He wasn’t perfect. He didn’t treat his friend, who was gay, as well as we might want the epitome of kindness and understanding to treat other people. He never promised to be perfect. No one is.
One of the most enduring lessons Fred Rogers taught the world — especially Gen X kids like me who were maybe in desperate need of hearing it — was that we do the best we can with what we have at any given moment. And we are enough. We’re important — every single person.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was beautifully done. Like Fred Rogers himself, it was understated and quiet, nearly to the point where you think it should be boring — but somehow, instead, it makes you lean in and listen harder.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter and Instagram and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation, and The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.