Won’t You Be My Neighbor? rated PG-13
Austin Family Critical Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Austin Family Family-Friendly Rating: 4 ½ of 5 stars
Morgan Neville’s documentary about the life and work of Fred Rogers, host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS and a general force for good in the universe, is one of the most moving cinematic experiences of this year. The fact that this summer’s radical alternative to cynical, cash-grab entertainment is a film about love and kindness says so much about the state of … everything.
I’ll admit that I didn’t grow up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – my main point of reference was Eddie Murphy’s send-up (Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood) on Saturday Night Live. But in a remarkably dense 94 minutes, Neville captures the spirit and life’s work of someone who engaged directly with the deepest and more pure emotions of young people.
An ordained minister, Rogers never directly referenced his Christian beliefs on his show, but he created an environment of empathy and care, in which the emotions of children were taken every bit as seriously as those of adults. His program, which began on PBS in 1968, often dealt with incredibly mature and difficult issues that he felt were essential to discuss with children. What is an assassination? Why do parents get divorced? He even spent an entire week on death – hardly the typical, mindless entertainment provided by other children’s programs.
As I watched clips from his show and observed the impact his program had on children, I was fascinated by many of its formal qualities. His was a show with low production values, simple sets and the audacity to actually be about something – it spoke to children about real things, rather than engulfing them in nonsensical violence. As Rogers says in his testimony before a US Senate Subcommittee in 1969 (in which he successfully persuaded Senator John Pastore to keep PBS funded), he wanted children to know feelings were both mentionable and manageable. During his testimony, you can almost see the adults in the room wishing they had such a program growing up.
I was particularly taken with his use of silence and slowness as a tool on television – there’s an entire section of the film devoted to Neighborhood segments like spending an entire minute in silence or simply watching a turtle crawl across the floor. Rogers brought a similarly thoughtful approach to a new show for older audiences called Old Friends … New Friends in 1978, but adults weren’t nearly as open to his genuine and leisurely approach as children. Perhaps by a certain age, many adults have been corrupted by real-word distractions. But Rogers had a gift for nurturing and exploring the emotions of children before they reached that stage – while they were still open, impressionable and possessing an innate curiosity about the world. I think this is one of many reasons why Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is resonating with adult audiences right now – here is a man who attempted to cultivate the best in us at an early age, before the cynicism of adulthood began its course.
Neville uses beautiful, evocative animation to illustrate many of the inadequacies Rogers felt as a child, many of which went on to inspire the ideas and characters in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. For instance, the character of Daniel Tiger (a worn-out sock puppet voiced by Rogers on his show) articulates many of his childhood fears – particularly the feeling of being different from everyone else.
The film also addresses questions about Mister Rogers from those who could never fathom that such a nice, gentle man could exist. Certain people always seem to assume creepiness or something sinister behind genuineness – there’s no good thing that vultures won’t pick apart to death. But Fred Rogers was, by all accounts, exactly the man you see on television. That doesn’t mean, however, that he wasn’t consumed by doubt – particularly as to whether his attempt to use television for a greater good had any impact at all.
In a summer full of so many bland, cynical reboots and sequels simply redesigned to fit our modern age, I’m far more interested in original pieces aiming to engage us about the horror surrounding us and what it means to try to be a good person. Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, the best film of the year so far, does this so well, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? fits into this category, as well. It’s never helpful for a film to preach about doing the right thing – it’s far more interesting and moving to watch someone wrestle with how to do it.
Ultimately, this film weighs whether Fred Rogers’ mission succeeded. Late in the film, one of his sons quotes his father as saying that, in a time of tragedy or strife, one must always look for the people who are helping – they will always be there. I sat there and thought to myself, yes, I think there are good humans like Fred Rogers still around – they’re just no longer on television.
This film is rated PG-13 for a few slightly off-color jokes by friends and colleagues of Fred Rogers, and for the vitriol written on signs by protestors at his funeral. Neither should discourage parents from taking their children to see this film – I can’t think of another picture in recent release (even in animated entertainment) with such a strong emphasis on doing good in the world.
Jack Kyser is a graduate of Austin High School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.