I am quite biased and immovable when it comes to the subject of this Focus Features documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Fred Rogers). No one can tell me that Fred Rogers was not an angel sent down from the very heavens as an example of what we should all aspire to emulate. His ability to talk to and more importantly, to LISTEN to youngsters in a way that made us who were brought up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood feel important and special is unrivaled.
And to the folks (as featured in the film) who taken a more misanthropic look back on Rogers’ life and impact on culture – sorry but you are wrong. Very much like the film suggests, I do not think Rogers’ message to young people ever carries any self-importance, privilege or sense of entitlement. In fact, the message is quite the opposite; we are all different – physically, emotionally, spiritually. The lesson he taught us is to never be ashamed of those differences; instead we should make sure to value and hold dear those things that make us uniquely who we are. This is the thread which runs through the documentary.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is not the first documentary to probe into the life and work Fred Rogers. And like all the profiles I have seen, this one continued the streak of leaving me with more than a couple of tears in my eyes at its conclusion.
A Very Balanced Portrait
The challenge in making a film on a subject who inspires deep feelings of nostalgia risks portraying such a beloved individual in an overly sentimental way. On the other hand, you have to be careful not to swing too far in the other direction and come off as overly cynical. Director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) manages to strike the right balance.
The film paints a complete, if sometimes schmaltzy portrait of a man who was not perfect and let you see his vulnerabilities. The beauty of the man was that he took those shortcomings and shared them with his audience, showing us all that it is sometimes okay to be sad, or scared, or afraid. But it is important that we take those emotions and confront them the best way we can. The result is affirming – we come out of these experiences wiser, stronger and better able to work through them when those feelings reappear at various stages of our lives.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? also portrays Rogers as a man who cared about all of humanity. While he is most celebrated for the work he did with children, the film does an admirable job of showing, through testimonials, how this compassion and care infected all of those around him – young and old.
Experiences like this remind me of the magic of movies and their ability to jump off the screen, reach in and touch you in the most heartwarming way. For that reason alone, I highly recommend you take a look at this documentary.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is available to own on Blu-Ray or DVD on September 4th.