"Won't You Be My Neighbor?", director Morgan Neville's lovingly crafted tribute to the life and legacy of Fred Rogers and his landmark work in children's television, might be the important film to be released in 2018.
It's certainly not the flashiest, not the loudest, not the most dramatic or shocking or thrilling piece of entertainment to arrive on big screens this year, nor will it be by year's end.
But it's important because of the message it carries on in the name of the man it honors. That message of kindness, of respect for other people and basic human decency, and the courage to live by such ideas in a cynical world where they are at times viewed with suspicion and scorn, must still be delivered, must still be heard, now more than ever.
What's it about?
"Won't You Be My Neighbor?" is a wide-ranging examination of the origins of "Mister Roger's Neighborhood" (originally titled "MisteRoger's Neighborhood") and how a young Fred Rogers, a year away from setting off for the seminary in 1967, discovered television and realized almost immediately its potential to impact in a positive way the lives of children.
Through interviews with family members, friends, colleagues who helped produce Rogers's show over its 895 episodes on public television and Rogers himself, who passed away in 2003, audiences learn about the conviction with which Rogers approached his work on the show each week. In his own way, he was a crusader, pushing radical ideas and pushing back against the nascent forces in television that aimed to push commercialism at children through cartoon action and violence.
The film touches on a number of ancillary subjects -- his family life, myths and misconceptions about his life before television and his sexuality, his efforts to branch beyond children's programming to help enrich the lives of adults, his reaction to the many parodies and satire of his program, and even the reaction of his family and surrogates in the wake of his passing to charges that his ideas led in part to a generation defined by weakness of character and a sense of entitlement.
Through it all, there's Rogers's gentle, thoughtful voice, his music, and many clips from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" that show how the simplest modes of communication and theater could be so effective in conveying both his message and his genuine personality.
Heartfelt and emotional
There's no denying that "Won't You Be My Neighbor" may feel a little scattered in terms of how the documentary is structured. Neville allows the film to almost follow Rogers's train of thought from one topic to the next, Rogers's own voice explaining his convictions, where they came from and why it was so important to him that he fight for them.
Rogers believed that the importance of current events and controversial issues shouldn't be hidden from children, but instead explained in a way they could understand and process. His unique gift for speaking plainly and clearly to children, to their hearts and minds, when paired with his Presbyterian background and deeply-held beliefs about how television should and should not be used in regards to children, led to the creation of a program that defied all the rules of broadcast television and created a phenomenon that touched the lives of generations of Americans.
Like Rogers himself, the film speaks with a voice that's gentle, but compelling and formidable. Often in the film Neville utilizes footage of Rogers looking directly at the audience, talking to them as if he were right there, pleading his case for day-to-day kindness, tolerance, and understanding.
There seems also to be in "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" an implicit challenge to the jadedness of our current cultural atmosphere, the almost universal suspicion we as Americans now hold towards people and institutions who present themselves as kind for no other reason except to spread kindness.
There are moments in the film where the earnestness in Fred Rogers's voice, his disarming demeanor and charm, and the way he could so easily reach children may prove disconcerting to audiences, just because our faith as a society in the good intentions of others has been so severely rocked in recent decades by scandals and abuses of the public trust.
We've been trained to cast a skeptical eye on those who seem to have no edge, no dark side. Neville as a director and the filmmakers behind this project seem to know that and deliberately dare audiences to put aside that instinctual recoil, to remember when they were children and Mister Rogers was an unimpugnable force for good in their lives.
If you only see one movie in 2018, it should be "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"
Yes, the film is that engrossing, that compelling, that emotional and that important.
If anything, it may have you asking whether such a man, delivering his message in this way to children, could have the same success now that he did decades ago, or has the world changed so much that it would be impossible, that he might be torn down by the forces of spite and suspicion.
It's a question worth debating, but consider this: it wasn't easy to do what Fred Rogers did in the 1960s, either, in a time of war and fear and doubt. But Mister Rogers did it anyway, because it was important -- he had the courage to be kind, and that courage may yet inspire others.
We can only hope.
Won't You Be My Neighbor?
Directed by Morgan Neville.
Running time: 93 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language.