My therapy session with Mr. Rogers

A daughter in her 40s and her mother in her 80s, squeezed together in an effort to pose for a selfie in two adjoining movie seats.

As Spencer and I walked past them before the start of “A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood,” we smiled and gave them big nods of approval. They acknowledged us with a comment and even more smiles.

As I fumbled with my phone for a quick selfie, the theater turned dark and the first of a handful of trailers flashed on the screen.

Near the end of a promising trailer for Disney’s live-action version of “Mulan,” Spencer remarked out loud for all to hear, “now that’s a whole lot of woman.”

The mother and daughter looked back and laughed.

When I attributed the comment to Spencer, the daughter looked to pin the blame on me.

“I’m more of a Wonder Woman guy myself,” I replied.

More laughter.

The movie begins with the disclaimer “Inspired by a true story” of Tom Junod, a cynical, disgruntled journalist assigned to do a puff piece on Fred Rogers for Esquire magazine in 1998.

Perhaps it would have been more truthful to say “sort of inspired by a true story with a few more fake scenes thrown in to make a better movie.”

But that would have been wordier.

To start with, the name of Junod is changed to Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys). Despite the liberties taken with parts of the story, the essence of the story and character played by Rhys is accurate, Junod said later.

The movie shows Vogel observing Fred at work in Pittsburgh and even spending some time with Fred’s wife, Joanne.

At one point, Vogel asks Joanne, “what’s it like to living with a saint?”

Oh, he’s not a saint, she tells him. He has flaws like everyone else, including a temper. The incredible kindness shown repeatedly by Fred Rogers didn’t always come naturally. He had to work at it, she says.

As I watched, it felt like free therapy at times. During emotional scenes, I noticed how silent the theater was — no undercurrent of talking, smart remarks or people leaving for snacks or the bathroom.

When Rogers teaches children and adults ways to deal with anger, including “you can play all the low notes on a piano at the same time,” a powerful scene shows this might be more autobiographical than we first realize.       

Which bring us to Hanks. Sure, he captures the diction and soothing intonation of Rogers. But he does something far more powerful than imitation or parody. Hanks discovers the nurturing soul of Rogers and captures it to near perfection.

As I watched, it felt like free therapy at times. During emotional scenes, I noticed how silent the theater was — no undercurrent of talking, smart remarks or people leaving for snacks or the bathroom.

As the end credits flashed on the screen, Spencer started to clap. I followed suit, partly to not leave him hanging by himself and partly because that was my natural reaction to the movie. We weren’t the only ones, as about a dozen other audience members joined us.

Without even thinking, I voiced a thought that came to my head — meant less as a joke but far more as self-discovery.

“I’ve got to try and be kinder,” I said to nobody in particular.

As we stopped in front of the mother and daughter still sitting in front of us, I told them how impressed I was with both of them. The mother, a tiny woman with white hair, leaned forward and grabbed my hand with both of hers.

After I said something else, she reached out and grabbed my hands a second time. My attempt to reach out to her with kindness was returned to me ten-fold.

As we said good-bye, an image of the real Mr. Rogers flashed on the screen.

I think he would have been pleased with our attempt at kindness. Because that’s something that doesn’t just happen.

You have to work at it.

One Reply to “My therapy session with Mr. Rogers”

  1. I like this. And I’m glad to hear this movie is better than the PG-13 (I kid you not) “documentary that came out last summer about him. I took my little kids not realizing what we were about to see wasn’t really produced for kids. Nor would it have please Fred. There are other really good and true to Fred Rogers docs out there to stream as well but I’m looking forward to seeing this. Thanks!

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