Won’t You Be My Neighbor?-2018
Scott’s Review #783
Reviewed July 5, 2018
As much as I enjoy the documentary genre, it has somehow never been close to the top of my favorites list. Many films of this ilk are very good, providing some relevant facts about a subject matter perhaps taboo to me, but sometimes they are somewhat interesting, few are great. Along comes a documentary that is emotional, inspiring, and lovely. Won’t You Be My Neighbor (2018), based on the life of Fred Rogers is simply great.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? chronicles the life and rise to popularity of a kindly, mild-mannered man from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with a simple message of kindness towards children. Beginning as a local television personality, the show he created centered around children and producing positive messages for them. Universally known as Mister Rogers, the documentary explains his determination, eventual fame, his ability to enrich lives, and his need to introduce heavy subject matters to children in order to expose them rather than shelter them from it. In today’s tumultuous times boy is he missed!
Having fond memories of watching the PBS television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child, the program offered a feast of creativity in every half hour. Featuring the Neighborhood of Make Believe, a magical trolley would transport the viewer to a world of puppets (voiced by Rogers). Other poignant moments occurred when Rogers would sing the catchy theme song at the top of every show. The episodes were filled with simple yet important messages of self-acceptance, diversity, and kindness towards others.
At the conclusion of each episode Rogers would sing the song “It’s Such a Good Feeling” in such a way that any child watching would feel secure, loved, and embraced. Rogers sadly died in 2003- his wife, grown children, and various former cast members relay cherished memories and inspirational stories about the creative genius. Rumored to have had an insecure childhood, he was a champion at insuring children felt worthy and accepted for who they are. The documentary also shows via news flashbacks how Rogers fought in court for necessary funding.
My emotional reaction surprised me quite frankly. I expected a nostalgic trip back to childhood with flashbacks from the show, some interviews and a jovial good time. Instead, I was utterly blown away by how touching and humanistic the documentary was in addition to the aforementioned expectations. Sure, old clips (some black and white) brought a flood of memories as puppets Daniel Striped Tiger, Madame, and King Friday XIII, make appearances, but the flood of tears that accompanied the memories was unexpected.
Never at all preachy, the documentary holds the same level of genuine goodness as Rogers does. For audiences watching the film, the question of when someone will well up in tears is the wrong question- it’s how often? Examples of the most touching scenes are when a young, gay actor is accepted by Rogers for who he is when his own family members do not. A handicapped child confined to a wheelchair sings a heart wrenching duet with Rogers. Finally, as Rogers gives a commencement speech at a college university a teary graduate explains why he gave her a special preschool education.
Perhaps the most poignant moment occurs in the final moments of the documentary. When many of the film participants are asked to think for just a moment about someone who taught them kindness, whether they are alive or dead, the sequence is monumental in feeling. A quick foray into the current political climate in the United States is only briefly skated around, carefully so as not to ruin the sweetness of the overall experience.
Director Morgan Neville perfectly paces his documentary so that it never drags. At one hour and thirty four minutes the flow is perfectly structured. The first half is a bit lighter and fun while the second half culminates with a more serious and introspective tone. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) is a brilliant documentary film and one of the best I have ever seen.