Love thy neighbourhood | Exploring Faith in A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019)


In the closing chapters of Marielle Heller's A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, Lloyd Vogel's family gathers to celebrate the life of his father, Jerry. The graveyard where they bury him is unusual for the fact it has no boundaries. No fences to conceal the headstones, no looming shadows from a tall cathedral or church, it is a sunny day, and the houses that line the street have a full view from their window should they wish to sneak a glance. Everyone steps out in faith every day, whether that is spiritual or otherwise. We wake up and pursue an uncertain thing with certainty despite having the same full-frontal view to death as those houses lined up by the graveside. There is plenty to trouble us, to remind us of the fragility of being, whether that be through the tips of our scrolling fingers or witnessing tragedy in real-time, but despite that, we persist and do so with fearless faith. 

Should you have never come within a foot of a Bible, you will have heard the age-old phrase "love thy neighbour". It is the above all else commandment for practising Christians and essentially the moral of Mr Rogers' Neighbourhood. The opening bars of the film has Tom Hanks singing the signature theme song, featuring the famous lyric "I have always wanted to have a neighbour just like you". A Christ-led life in its purest form is an "other's first" kind of mentality, one that Fred Rogers put into practice each day. 

"He's just about the nicest person I've ever met," is how Lloyd Vogel recalls his first encounter with Fred. It is not said with adoration or intrigue but with cynicism and doubt. We are supposed to be suspicious of "too good to be true" or things that seem inherently benevolent. Our societal expectations stem from governments who have taught us those good things come from hard work or media that pedals hustle culture. So when goodness is free, our backs stiffen, and we ultimately become wearier of our surroundings. The idea that Mr Rogers could be as face value as they come is abstract for Lloyd, and Heller gives that grace to her audience, saying: "I know this is weird, but trust me". 

There are a few key scenes that contribute to the subtle polemic the filmmakers thread through about faith. Perhaps one of the clearest is when Mr Rogers visits New York City, and Lloyd accompanies him to the taping of his show in a theatre. Sat quietly next to the similarly suspicious Bill, Lloyd gets the phrase "He likes everybody, but he loves people like you", woven into his subconscious. Bill unknowingly simplifies the complex attraction Mr Rogers has towards Lloyd by essentially utilising a Bible verse. 2 Corinthians 12:9 states ""My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness." So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses so that the power of Christ can work through me.". Lloyd thinks this connects to his 'brokenness', but actually, it nods to his ability to be himself even though it is not externally 'perfect'. This belief is a key to Mr Rogers' faith. He doesn't deem himself to be a fixer. His interest is within honouring and accepting people as they come, just as Christ did and does. He is drawn to Lloyd because he openly displays his hurt, uninterested in dressing it up, even when that manifests in something physical like a black eye.

This scene follows into another lesson from Joanne Rogers, who says the much-quoted "If you think of him as a Saint, then his way of being isn't attainable". She addresses Fred's simple acts of faith, including reading scripture and praying for people by name. Those later exhibited in action as Fred pours over a book of prayer requests, but also in moments of intentionality, such as Fred calling Lloyd and saying: "you left without saying goodbye". He treats every interaction with seriousness, wasting not a single second or word when with them. Mr Rogers understands the weight of his words and how they will rub off on others, and we get a moment of seeing the impact on Lloyd later when Andrea arrives at Jerry's house. For the first time, Lloyd pauses, and he looks her in the eye to say, "Thank you for coming". Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster's script so neatly honour the Mr Rogers effect without signposting a grand change in Lloyd. By the end, he changes through grace.

The theme of grace is central to the narrative, as it was to Mister Rogers' life. Tom Junod's article, the one the film bases itself on, speaks directly to this in that he says Mister Rogers is greedy for the grace other people give to him. The New Living Translation of Ephesians 2:8-9 says, "God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it," and that belief is the one mystifies Lloyd throughout. He struggles to come to terms with the fact that Mister Rogers can thirst for something that benefits him beyond worldly accolades. 

The whole movie is a lesson in this undeniable ground-breaking concept that people try to master as they navigate life, and it is the foundation of what is so compelling about the man. Not interested in the idea that only 'good' people are those of faith. Mister Rogers does not reserve his kindness for those of similar thought patterns. It belongs to everyone, leading people to have that same compulsion around him that they do in a moment of great need, demonstrated when Lloyd runs from his family in the hospital to be with Fred. Even those who consider themselves atheists have muttered a quiet prayer in times of desperation, similar to those of faith who momentarily stray and want to get right again with God. It's a human impulse to believe in our lack of control in moments of hardship and long for a higher power to resolve them. Prayer is the ultimate intimacy, and Lloyd accesses this through Fred.

Those of faith need prayer, too, though. Fred is acutely aware of this, and Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster weave real-life example of him exhibiting this humility. When Jerry is in his closing season, Fred secretly requests that he pray from him. Though never fully clarified or discussed, Jerry alludes to his faith through wearing a crucifix and agreeing to pray on behalf of Mister Rogers. The measure of a character's faith is never central to how well-liked or overtly kind they are. Jerry has his own issues to combat throughout the film, but he is still capable of grace, empathy and kindness in the same way Fred is.

The final moments are perhaps some of the most loved by audiences and those who have critiqued the film. Mister Rogers sits down to elegantly play his crew offset at the end of a day's filming. He plays the closing song of his show, "It's Such a Good Feeling", in minor chords, and like another of his songs, "Sometimes People Are Good", says "the very same people who are glad sometimes, are the very same people who get mad sometimes". By taking his sadness to the piano, Mister Rogers gives himself and the film one last act of grace. As previously mentioned, he plays all the lowest notes on a piano to express his anger, and once finished, in a moment of private melancholy, he runs his fingers over the keys that play "It's You I Like". That moment is one of persistent faith, that even though he is harbouring a brief wave of anger within him, he gets to like himself for who he is.

There are so many smaller moments to love, like the unification of strangers singing on the subway, and the wise lessons, such as:

"Each one of us is precious"

"There is no normal life free of pain"

"Anything mentionable is manageable"

But ultimately, all of these bouts of wisdom are pulled straight from scripture and the central ethos to being a person of faith. It's a beautiful thing Marielle Heller does to so quietly discuss such a divisive topic and humanise it in a graceful way that is uninterested in talking people down for their belief system. Lloyd and Mr Rogers are seemingly two halves of humanity, and neither one of them is wrong, but ultimately we value the good and we strive to embody it, too. 

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