'Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood' puts Mr. Rogers' lessons on the big screen

TORONTO — Adults have a lot to learn from the gentle lessons of late children's entertainer Fred Rogers, say the stars of a feature film that details a jaded journalist's transformative friendship with the man best known as Mr. Rogers.

Tom Hanks stars as the soft-spoken TV star in "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," which focuses on the emotional turmoil of a hardened New York magazine writer sent to profile him, played by Matthew Rhys.

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The story is inspired by the actual relationship Rogers forged with journalist Tom Junod, who wrote a profile for Esquire in 1998 but came away with a friendship that lasted until Rogers' death of stomach cancer in 2003.

Sixteen years later, co-star Enrico Colantoni, who plays Rogers' producer and right-hand man Bill Isler, says the film reminds us there is beauty in this fractured world, and that it's worth seeking out.

"We've lost sight of what is beautiful, that beauty still exists. We need to remind ourselves that he saw it then — and even then as adults we didn't want to believe it and we still don't want to believe it," Colantoni said during a round of interviews at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film premiered in September.

"It scares the crap out of us to be loved, to be seen, to be heard. Really, really to be heard. (And) we're waiting for Fred Rogers to come back. It's like: wait a minute, you're missing the point, man. Everybody needs to be Fred Rogers."

In this age of distrust and bitterness, Colantoni says we could all benefit from emulating the kindness Rogers imparted on his long-running PBS series "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood."

"That was his message.... We hold the cards and we need to take that responsibility. And I hope that's the message that people get from this film."

During a jovial press conference, a bearded Hanks touted Rogers' tender approach to connecting with children as a welcome balm to today's oft-harsh view of humanity.

He notes that Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, created the show in response to the cynical take on children's entertainment pervasive in the 1950s and early '60s.

"When Fred Rogers first saw children's programming he saw something that was cynical and why in the world would you put a pipeline to cynicism in the minds of a two- or three-year-old kid? That you are 'not cool' because don't have this toy? That it's funny to see somebody being bopped on the head?" said Hanks, who inhabits the devoutly religious Rogers with graceful, languid gestures and a serene voice.

Even today, that cynicism is rampant.

"Cynicism has become the default position for so much of daily structure and daily intercourse," he said.

"Why? Because it's easy and there's good money to be made at it."

The film's flawed main character, the journalist named Lloyd, serves as the entry point for audiences to absorb lessons about kindness, compassion and tolerance, added director Marielle Heller, who suggested many people become more jaded as they age.

"For many of us audience members, he's us," Heller said of Lloyd.

"We come into this movie thinking, 'Eh, I don't know if I'm going to buy any of this.' And in the way that we get to watch Lloyd chip away at his cynicism through Fred, we get to have that cathartic moment for ourselves, I hope."

The Toronto-bred Colantoni said Rogers' magnanimous spirit was very present throughout the shoot, and that Isler was generous with his time.

Isler, too, is an inspiration for many early year educators, Colantoni added, noting that as a TV producer he championed Rogers' efforts to promote children's social, emotional, and behavioural health through positive depictions on television.

As a friend, Isler was incredibly protective of Rogers, Colantoni said, in large part because Rogers could be generous to a fault: "Left to his own devices he would sit and talk to somebody for hours and hours and hours. He needed somebody to say, 'OK, Fred, we've got to go now, we've got a plane to catch.'"

When it came to shooting the film, Isler was just as generous, Colantoni said.

"Bill was very much present in my life personally. I took to him and he took to me and my wife and he took care of us," Colantoni said, sharing one such example.

"My wife pulled her back out one day — it was a Saturday, we were supposed to meet them for lunch — and I go, 'Bill, I don't think we can do it," he recalled. "He goes, 'Give me 10 minutes.'"

Isler brought the duo to a walk-in clinic, helped them pick up medicine, and then they all had lunch, went shopping and took a trip to the Flight 93 Memorial outside Pittsburgh together, he said.

"A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" may be unapologetic in its feel-good message, but Colantoni said it's a welcome break from big-budget spectacles that currently dominate the multiplex, bemoaning that, "we started losing ourselves in the big superhero movies."

"Personally, I'd like to see us get away from the superhero stuff and come back to films like this."

"A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" hits theatres Friday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Nov. 19, 2019.

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