Tom Hanks does not look very much like Fred Rogers. Tom Hanks does not sound very much like Fred Rogers. And Tom Hanks does not move very much like Fred Rogers. Given that the new pseudo-biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood has been sold almost solely on the basis of "watch with amazement as living American legend Tom Hanks brings life back to deceased American legend Fred Rogers!", one would suspect that these three facts might cause the film some insurmountable problems. That they do not - that, indeed, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not merely a good movie but arguably the single best pure character study of 2019 - is because the film has been somewhat badly misrepresented by its PR people.

This is certainly not a simple exercise in basking in Rogers's Rogers-ness; for that, we can turn back to the 2018 documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, a film whose insufficiencies have been thrown into glaring relief by this new feature. It's something a bit more conceptual: basically, this is structured as a feature-length adaptation of an episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, the beloved (and, yes, legendary) American children's television program in which Rogers would calmly and quietly talk to his audience about emotions and how the adult world works. So Hanks isn't playing Fred McFeely Rogers, the television producer and star who lived from 1928 until 2003; he is playing the character "Mister Rogers", a calm, comforting presence whose warm familiarity is as important to his affect as anything he says or does. Casting Hanks, American pop culture's designated Beloved Uncle, in the role is undoubtedly a stunt, but it's a stunt that works.

Anyway, that's all besides the point. It's not Hanks's movie. Instead, it belongs to Matthew Rhys, who plays Esquire journalist Lloyd Vogel, assigned in 1998 to profile Rogers for an issue on great heroes (this is all based loosely on the experience of Tom Junod, who published the article that we see Lloyd write in the film). It is a story about learning to forgive, not for the benefit of the person being forgiven, but for the benefit of the person doing the forgiving: in Lloyd's case, forgiving his father (Chris Cooper), who abandoned the family years before, when Lloyd's mother was sick. That's the entire plot. What the film captures is something subtle and tricky: it is not a story in which Mister Rogers shows up in Lloyd's life as a kind of magical elf, dispensing wisdom and moral philosophy, though it could easily turn into exactly this thing with virtually no changes to Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster's screenplay. It is instead the story of how Rogers acts as a catalyst; he gives Lloyd permission to change but does not push him to do so. That the film is able to create this extremely subtle distinction is thanks to a lot of people: Rhys and Hanks, of course, as well as director Marielle Heller, doing amazing work in creating the finest gradations of meaning through how she places the camera so that characters are just slightly imbalanced in compositions. Also editor Anne McCabe, who has cut what I'd call without a second's hesitation my favorite conversations in any 2019.

It is one particular cut in one particular conversation, I think, that demonstrates just exactly what the film's game is and how well it plays it. The first of several meetings between Lloyd and Rogers ends up on the Mister Rogers' Neighborhood set during a break in filming, and it's assembled as a very basic shot/reverse-shot exchange behind the men. And then at a certain point, the cutting breaks the 180-degree line to place the camera in front of them on a cut to Hanks, at exactly the moment that he shifts Rogers from being a celebrity discussing his work to a minister gently providing guidance to a tormented member of his flock. It's in little, almost invisible moments like these that the filmmakers let us see Rogers's method: though mild little gestures every bit as unnoticed and subtle as the filmmaking. While the film includes the expect big emotional plot points, it does not treat them with noisy melodrama, and they are anyways not the moments where Lloyd evolves. The work of the film is done in moments of stillness and silence: Rhys holding his face immobile as the camera hangs on him in close-up (that's another brilliant touch: Heller and McCabe hang onto their close-ups jealously, so that they all feel significant. If the film did nothing else to impress me, its restraint in this matter, a precious rarity in Hollywood filmmaking in the late 2010s, would be enough). Or, in one of the most bold gestures Heller makes, letting Hanks turn from Rhys to look straight into the camera and let us feel the weight of the film's emotional journey from how damn unnerving it is to have the most fundamental rule of cinema so casually violated.

The whole film is virtually nothing but grace notes, which makes the bigger moments feel a bit intrusive. There are three different musical montages, and every one of them left me a bit annoyed; the film is making its point so effortlessly that it feels cheap of it to rely on such obvious tricks. There's also a hallucination sequence that I can't entirely grouse about; it gives Rhys one of his very best line readings in the whole movie. But the movie doesn't need contrived revelations to show us Lloyd's self-discovery; Rhys's skill in staring at his shoes with all the weight of a lifetime guilt and anger pushing on his neck was more than enough for that.

Still, a grand total of four notable missteps in something this immaculate overall leaves a lot of wonderful material to choose from. It is uncommonly good at letting people be people, and it even treats Rogers as a human rather than a secular saint; at a few points, he leaves Lloyd's questions unanswered not by dodging them but by briefly shutting down, with Hanks's face simply emptying, like an animatronic that's just had its power source turned off. I take this as the film's way of treating Rogers with the respect he treated his audience: not as some kind of special other, but as a human with normal, messy emotions. It's a way of asking us to be grown adults who can look at Rogers as another grown adult, while also reminding us that the tools he provided to children to work through their feelings still can work for the rest of us, given that we're all basically people at any age. In the guise of a nostalgia trip, it's the first thing from nostalgic, asking us to think of who we are right now, in the moment of watching the film, and offer us a chance to reflect on that. There hasn't been a finer study of everyday human emotions all year.

For even more enthusiasm, check out Rob & Carrie's video review. And for details about the film's relationship with the true story, visit Catherine's blog post.