How the Disturbing Holiness of Mr Rogers in ‘A Beautiful Day’ Makes Us Better Parents
Spoilers for the film ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’ throughout.
Certain movies stick in our memory, speaking to us long after their credits roll. One of these, for me, is director Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood from 2020, a fictionalized version of the encounter between an angry, embittered investigative journalist named Lloyd Vogel (played impeccably by Matthew Rhys) and the unlikely children’s TV superstar Fred Rogers (played with mystery and nuance by Tom Hanks). There are at least three things about this movie that are worth writing about: the first is that A Beautiful Day tells us something about what being a good parent, and specifically a father, means. The second is that the film’s use and portrayal of Mr. Rogers show us something about what “holiness” is, bringing this lofty concept down to earth and revealing how it might enter our lives. The third thing is that A Beautiful Day connects these two ideas: in some way holiness and good parenting are linked. To learn about holiness is to become a better parent, and to become a better parent is to learn something about holiness.
First, let’s say a word about religion. The real Mr. Rogers (1928–2003) was a Christian (an ordained Presbyterian minister), and the film occasionally refers to Christian practices such as prayer and reading scripture. But the wisdom A Beautiful Day offers is not limited to those who identify as Christians, nor does it try to convert anyone to Christianity. The religious spirit of the film is not focused on doctrine, denomination, ritual, nor anything that we typically see as religion. A Beautiful Day is a rare example of non-exclusive religiosity. It doesn’t seek to promote any particular set of truths or advertise any story about reality. The film is not lost in the details of religious behavior. In this way, Heller’s film offers a corrective or challenge to our tendency to reduce religions to sets of rules or formulas to be followed. As Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo writes, “There is almost nothing worse than divine law operating on its own, without a primary, innate moral values” (from Cardozo on the Parashah, location 245 in the kindle version). Sometimes we need to step back to take a deeper look at our innate moral values, asking: what concepts and modes of behavior lie not only at the heart of religion but of the good life in general, no matter our background or chosen affiliation (or non-affiliation)? A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood helps us step back, reminding us what matters, what we may have lost in our day-to-day search for control and security.
How does A Beautiful Day help us do this? By showing how an intelligent, experienced, deeply cynical, yet perfectly ordinary person — someone perhaps not unlike ourselves — can be caught off guard by the subversive joy of facing his own painful imperfections. The cynical protagonist is the previously mentioned journalist Lloyd Vogel, introduced via a still-image of his stunned, bruised face after assaulting his father at his sister’s wedding. Outwardly, Lloyd is a tremendously successful person with a wife he loves, a newborn son, and an enviable career (he is shown accepting an award for his work at the beginning of the film). The problem is that none of his success brings him happiness. His internal misery is beginning to leach out into every facet of his life, affecting others’ perception of him. Despite his journalistic success (or perhaps because of it), no one wants to be interviewed by him since he cannot help but write takedowns, exposing the “truth that others cannot see” (as Mr. Rogers’ assistant remarks later in the film, “I’ve read your work — you don’t really care for humanity, do you?”). Lloyd’s vitriol toward his recently resurfaced father, Jerry (who abandoned Lloyd as a child, leaving him to care for his dying mother alone), drives Lloyd more obsessively into his work, ironically recreating in him the same abandoning tendencies toward his family which characterize Jerry. At the beginning of the film, for example, Lloyd does not know how many diapers his son goes through a day, or why his wife Andrea does not want to leave their infant son with a babysitter yet. Lloyd is trapped in a vicious work cycle: his success comes with the price of isolating himself more and more, and any awareness of this self-isolation causes him to defensively dig his heels in deeper. Unable to consider taking off work to spend time with his transitioning family, Lloyd receives, to his dismay, an assignment to profile someone who, for some reason, is not scared off by Lloyd’s lacerating cynicism: Fred Rogers. Already a question arises in the viewer’s mind (as it does in Lloyd’s): why does Mr. Rogers agree to be subjected to Lloyd’s takedown journalism? Rogers shakes up both audience and protagonist before he even arrives onscreen.
Nothing about Lloyd’s initial encounter with Mr. Rogers at the latter’s studio in Pittsburgh goes the way the journalist expects, but there is one moment in particular where the film halts in its tracks, tearing open the film in a mundanely divine disruption as if Mr. Rogers’ effortless attention to the present threatens progress itself. Before we get to this moment, let’s note the way the film leads up to it: as soon as Lloyd arrives in the children’s show studio, Mr. Rogers is shown taking unnecessary time with others, especially children. Lloyd’s first glimpse of Rogers finds him speaking gently to an ill child who came to visit with his parents instead of filming. Rogers’ assistant rushes in to move things along, but when filming finally begins Lloyd and his production team watch the elderly host struggle awkwardly with setting up a tent for several minutes, only to turn to the camera and breathlessly conclude: “It must take two grown-ups to set up a tent.” His team assumes Rogers will want to do another take. To their surprise, Rogers thinks they got it — he is okay with looking like a fool on television, to show his young audience that even adults struggle and fail.
In a brief interview during a break from filming, Lloyd asks Rogers if he thinks of himself as a hero. Lloyd has a vision of Rogers that might fit our own: Rogers must be hiding something (because no one, in Lloyd’s view, could be such an authentic or kind person). Lloyd confidently assumes that “Mr. Rogers” the character is an act, someone different from the “real” Fred Rogers. But this line of questioning leads nowhere, as Rogers does not immediately accept Lloyd’s terms, and the journalist ends up divulging that the cut on his face is not from a baseball incident, as he said at first, but rather from a fight with Jerry, his father. Lloyd quickly regroups, saying that he is here to interview Mr. Rogers, not the other way around. Rogers responds with vexing opacity: “Well, that is what we’re doing, isn’t it?”
This question leads us to consider the role of Mr. Rogers as he is depicted in this film. Rogers is the first character we see onscreen — he provides the frame, the lens, for all events in the story, introducing Lloyd as he would on his TV show. And yet, as soon as our attention is trained on Rogers we find, like Lloyd in his interview, that our questions turn back on themselves: any inquiry which aims to pin down Rogers’ identity (to determine which persona is the “real” Mr. Rogers) ends up drawing attention to the interviewer’s active participation in the conversation. The interviewer’s objective distance is pierced by Rogers’ interest in Lloyd, his refusal to accept Lloyd’s treatment of him as an object of reverence or scrutiny. Lloyd is flummoxed; his job as a journalist is to stand outside the frame of his reported stories and observe, to unemotionally expose an untold and unwelcome truth. But every attempt to exclude himself from his relationship with Rogers fails, revealing Lloyd at the center of his own story, forcing Lloyd to acknowledge, again and again, his presence, his responsibility, to his world. Mr. Rogers ends their brief interview by taking a picture of Lloyd, cementing the fact that what Lloyd wished would be business as usual (a normal interview where he could control his subject via his scrutinizing, clinical gaze) is, for Mr. Rogers, a chance to know and remember someone. To Lloyd’s dismay, friendship stubbornly enters his relationship with Mr. Rogers from the very beginning.
But the mundanely divine moment I mentioned above only occurs after the interview ends anticlimactically, as Lloyd wanders across the studio watching Rogers film a scene as Daniel Tiger, a small hand puppet which Rogers has to hide behind a set to operate, reading his lines from a nearby teleprompter. Lloyd, glancing over his shoulders to see if anyone will stop him, passes the entire soundstage to watch Mr. Rogers mid-performance as the latter sings (as Daniel Tiger) a song about the very problem which secretly plagues Lloyd’s entire life — how to acknowledge and express angry, unpleasant emotions. Here, finally, is the moment I referred to where the movie breaks its rhythm, pausing to let Daniel’s song play out in its entirety as a look of utter confusion dawns on Lloyd’s face. The scene is nothing extraordinary, and yet Lloyd cannot believe what is before his eyes. Can this adult man really be performing a children’s song so earnestly, with such playful dedication, such transcendent gravitas? In his irrepressible, illicit curiosity, Lloyd fuses with the film’s audience, reflecting our feeling of somehow being returned to our childhood, recalling the terrifying experience of vulnerability in facing an everyday world we do not quite understand or know how to navigate. We imagine Lloyd silently asking himself a question we have all asked as children, especially if we have been in some way abandoned or betrayed: is it okay for us to trust again? Is there someone out there who accepts us as we are, who offers unconditional love, who paves the way for our possible acceptance of being loved, or being worthy of love? Director Marielle Heller, in linking the audience so deeply with Lloyd, asks us to see our faults as we’ve seen Lloyd’s — are we any less defensive than he is? Are we any less assertive of our damaged identities, clinging to the limited selves we hope to control, unwilling to accept others’ and our own imperfections?
A question naturally arises here for both Lloyd and the audience: what are Mr. Rogers’ intentions? Does Rogers know what he is doing in turning the tables on Lloyd, posing questions to the questioner, refusing to be a good interview subject? Is Mr. Rogers’ elusive behavior all a tactical maneuver, an attempt to evade exposure, an unwillingness to hold the center of the frame to avoid exposing too much of himself? Back in his editor’s office after his first encounter with Rogers Lloyd says, “I just don’t know if he’s for real.” Is Mr. Rogers for real? To answer this question and further explore A Beautiful Day’s secrets let’s turn to a 2018 article by Anglican theologian Rowan Williams called “Holy Folly and the Problem of Representing Holiness: Some Literary Perspectives”. We do not have space here to cover all of Williams’ masterly argument, so let’s focus on some ways he talks about the ambiguous nature of holiness as it shows up in some Russian literature via the “holy fool”: “the phenomenon — even as a literary affair — of holy folly acts as a prompt to look for insight, spiritual discernment, in unlikely places, and to suspend judgment on apparently eccentric behavior” (6, my italics). According to Williams, stories about holy fools upend our ideas about what we think holiness should look like, the assumptions we make implicitly about what divine authority must be. Blurring the line between divinity and madness, or performative spirituality rooted in pride, the confusing, ambiguous nature of holy folly in literature steps back “from a clear public identity as a holy person; it is about the corrosion of the idea of holiness when it comes to a matter of public recognizability” (14).
Tom Hanks’ Mr. Rogers fits within this tradition. Rogers steps back from the center of the film to serve as a gentle yet persistent disruptor of Lloyd’s reality. Rogers effortlessly refuses Lloyd’s need to reduce others, to label and identify people once and for all. This refusal opens a space in Lloyd’s life for self-questioning, loosening his claustrophobic self-identification as someone who has been abandoned by (and therefore must himself abandon) his father. As Rowan Williams writes, the holy fool “has no ground to defend and so can be the agent of freedom for others locked in conflict and suffering” (14). By never answering whether Mr. Rogers is “for real” or not, the film forces us to re-examine our demand for reality from others — our insistence that others fall within our limited definitions of them. In lieu of finding some ground we expected Mr. Rogers to defend, we naturally start to ask why we assumed this defensiveness in the first place. Why don’t we want to acknowledge our involvement in the stories we tell? Have our attempts to find a “clear public identity” in others and ourselves been a way of fleeing recognition, perhaps because we do not want to challenge the assumption of our unlovability? The very asking of these questions is already a kind of release, an acknowledgment of the possibility that we may not know, finally, whether or not we are for real. Our life starts to feel more spacious and less preordained. The effect of Rogers’ sometimes maddening ambiguity is the loosening our reliance on and expectation of absolute unambiguity, on the possibility of total clarity of identity. Mr. Rogers doesn’t see other people as types or examples, but rather as individuals — as friends. As he remarks to Lloyd late in the film, “I’ve never met anyone like you in my entire life.” When Lloyd responds that he is “broken,” Rogers says simply, “I don’t think you are broken.” In declining to see others as neatly categorizable, as finally judged or defined, Rogers quietly becomes an agent of Lloyd’s freedom, allowing him to see his failures as a father, son, and husband because they no longer threaten to finally characterize who he is. Lloyd can accept, for the first time, that (as Rogers says in the film), “Being a parent does not mean being a perfect parent.”
Notably, director Marielle Heller doesn’t sugarcoat or dilute the destabilizing effects of Mr. Rogers’ holy folly in her film. On the contrary, in releasing his grip on his insistent self-identity — seeing beyond his brokenness — Lloyd simultaneously must face the most painful and terrifying thing of all: how he has been hurt, and how his actions have hurt and may hurt others. The realization that we are not perfect (and that our parents are not either) can be terrifying. It means that we relinquish the possibility of escaping the burden of relationship, that by acknowledging our limited perspectives, our inextricable involvement in the stories we tell, we may see, as Mr. Rogers says, “There is no normal life that is free from pain.” Furthermore, we may come to see this painful acknowledgment not as an imposition of external restrictions (as if Rogers wishes to place us in a restrictive box, chiding us to confess our sins), but rather as an acceptance of friendship, a coming in from the cold of our self-isolation, a dissolution of the humorless ideal of self which solidifies resentments. To effect this change, Rogers’ methods are playful, surprising, and strange — his holy folly enlists puppets from the land of make-believe, calling us back to the terrible vulnerability of childhood when we so blatantly depended completely on others. Paradoxically, experiencing this regression, the return to the feeling of being children, helps us to progress as parents. As Rogers says in an interview with Oprah, recreated for A Beautiful Day, the biggest mistake parents make is “not to remember their own childhood.” Our fear of rejection and abandonment ironically hinders our ability to love and abide with our children. Deeply seeing the painful element of life, how we depend on each other always (even as adults), helps us learn from our children, to grow in recognition of a dangerous, uncontrollable sense of helplessness. There is no formula for parenting, no guaranteed rulebook for dealing with the growth of another. As scary as this is, perhaps, Rogers suggests, this unpredictability is always an opportunity — a way of continually freeing ourselves from the stale, inaccurate boxes we’ve placed around ourselves.
Watching Lloyd Vogel grow as a parent is moving because we can imagine ourselves going through the same struggle. The film admits things we rarely admit, showing our fears about ourselves, reflecting our denials. Early in the film Lloyd is downright unsettled by the presence of his son. The curious, non-judgmental gaze of an infant is too much truth to bear, a mirror held up to Lloyd’s refusal to accept himself as flawed and complicated (like his own father was). It is scary to catch sight of our complicated familial legacies — what we might pass down unwittingly, what cannot be controlled or accounted for in the risk of parenthood. Ironically, the way to slip free from Lloyd’s tarnished legacy is to see through it, not by denial, but by accepting the irresolvable imperfection of being human— an acceptance which, to our surprise, makes our dubious inheritance less scary. As Rogers says in the film, “If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.”
Toward the end of A Beautiful Day, while staying at his bedridden father Jerry’s house, Lloyd’s son wakes him in the middle of the night. Lloyd rises quietly, warms a bottle, and sits with his son, speaking directly to the infant for the first time in the film. Moments later Lloyd’s father calls Lloyd into his room. Upon seeing Lloyd holding his grandson, Jerry says, “I never did this with you— up in the middle of the night doing the “mom” thing.” “It’s not a mom thing,” Lloyd responds frankly, but his words no longer burn with anger beneath the surface. The scene lingers as Lloyd stays with his father — three generations of men connected in one room, abiding with each other, imperfect yet opening to loving and being loved. Parenting, A Beautiful Day suggests, is an unending willingness to find ourselves through the eyes of another, a holy challenge to relinquish our clearly defined identities. Letting go of “perfection” is, A Beautiful Day suggests, both an act of forgiveness and an acceptance of responsibility.
Here is an abridged video essay version I made from this article.
Here’s the referenced Rowan Williams article from 2018: ‘Holy Folly and the Problem of Representing Holiness: Some Literary Perspectives’