Won't You Be My Neighbor?
In a world where the news seems to be in a constant state of just plan awful, this movie is a breath of fresh air. The timing of this documentary couldn't be better. I had a smile on my face almost the entire time I was watching. You'd be hard pressed to find someone walking out of this movie not believing the world would be better with more people like Mister Rogers in it.
The documentary covers the inception of the childhood-defining series Mister Rogers Neighborhood and the cast of characters who made the Make-Believe world a reality. The focus stays mostly on the inner-workings of the show brought to life with commentary from the people who were closest to him while it was on the air. I felt that story was so important, it didn't lack anything for them to shy away from his upbringing and the more personal details of his life.
The first run of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was before my time, but I was there in the thick of its second coming after a short hiatus. Those close to my age may be shocked to hear the show was first broadcast to a public audience in 1968. I knew it had a long run, but was unfamiliar with how radical his first seasons were by tackling some pretty heavy political topics from war, assassination, divorce and racism. Fred Rogers avoided very little in the way of what he would discuss on the show. He made it abundantly clear that children's feelings and emotions were not only valid, but they needed to be taught how to handle them. That was a strong message to put out back then and it's somehow even more relevant in today's world.
The warmness you feel watching this purely kind individual make an impassioned, yet simple plea to a grumpy senator to not cut funding to PBS and making genuine connections with children will overcome you. The reverence with which the cast speaks about Fred Rogers is nothing short of moving. You can feel the love and respect in their stories. Standouts for me were the delightfully funny Yo-Yo Ma (note: cellist here! hi!) and François Clemmons who shared his story of being gay in this conservative Neighborhood. You also get the privilege of hearing from his wife and two sons who give a little more insight into the man behind Mister Rogers, which spoiler alert: was pretty much the same man in your living room growing up.
It wouldn't be a compelling story without a few of uncomfortable moments in the midst of all the wonderfully uplifting moments. The documentary covered the unfortunate insistence by Fred that François keep being gay under wraps so they wouldn't lose funding. Other unsettling segments were the coverage of the various Mister Rogers parodies and several right-wing news outlets critiquing his show for telling children they were "too special" and entitling them. It all felt especially horrible after grasping such a deep understanding of how truly gentle and kindhearted Fred Rogers was in his intentions for the show and helping children. Even though it was unpleasant, they were important parts of the overarching story of Mister Rogers and his significant television program.
The nostalgia is strong with this one for those who grew up watching his show. The ending is truly one of the most poignant in recent memory. It left me choked up and a few tears may have escaped my eyes. Who's to say? But if you want a genuine escape and a feeling of hope for what the power of love and kindness can accomplish, get to the theater and see this movie.
Brit's pro tip: Make sure to stay through the credits... there's one final blow to the heart that's worth every second.