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Won't You Be My Neighbor?
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by Jay Seaver

"As good as its subject was decent."
5 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2018: All many people will want and need from "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" is to be assured that Fred Rogers really was the guy he seemed to be, and to maybe revisit his television house and the Neighborhood of Make-Believe to recapture the feeling of love and understanding and utter lack of irony that they could find for a half hour every day during their youth. Filmmaker Morgan Neville does that and does so with earnest sentimentality but not saccharine nostalgia. So, good job there.

What elevates the film is its clarity. Much as his subject did, Neville will show how Fred Rogers did something, say conducting an interview, and point out specific things he did (in that case, tending to get very close to a person and wait for them to elaborate) that enabled him to connect with children in ways many adults don't consider. Without making his film a tutorial on how to produce good content for children, Neville pushes back a bit on any assumption that because Fred Rogers was so singular, and his words often so simple, he must somehow be a creature of instinct rather than someone who considered things carefully.

The filmmakers aren't afraid to show that, as he aged, Rogers would sometimes find himself feeling inflexible the way the rest of us do, though he was also able to grow. There's a touch of disgust in his voice as he talks about certain modern things in the interview footage from later in his life, especially when contrasted to his determined but optimistic testimony before Congress about the need to safeguard public television in 1968, for instance, an understandable reaction to the time Neville spends comparing Rogers's show to the mercenary slapstick most other producers make for children. There's much more ambiguity to how he spends enough time for significance on a couple of sequences thirty years apart, where Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons (played by François Clemmons) cool their feet in a wading pool - pointedly connecting to how the first segment was about accepting neighbors of different ethnicities in the first case, leaving a little bit of room in the second even though the film includes it close to material on Rogers more unreservedly accepting Clemmons's orientation.

Clemmons is one of the more entertaining people Neville interviews during the film, laughing and willing to speak of his friend's faults even as he's also the one shown to break down and cry when the conversation reaches the fact that Rogers has passed away. Clemmons's colorful outfits are a good way to break up how many of the people who reminisce are a bit lower-case-c-conservative - early childhood development and public television doesn't necessarily attract firebrands - but there's still a broad selection of people represented. There is love in all of those interviews but not much fawning; some of the best bits come from a behind-the-scenes technician whose irreverent anecdotes enough to get what some might naturally assume to be a G-rated film bumped up to a PG-13.

The most important "talking head" is Fred Rogers himself; Neville pulls interviews that people have done with Rogers at various periods, and watching both them and the clips from his show can be a curious sensation - where most celebrities are either famous for a short time long enough for one to get used to their aging, most in the audience will, at various point, be surprised by both how young and old he seems, compared to when the viewer was five. Neville also selects bits of the long-running television show with intriguing care, and it's not just the segments that show Rogers was willing to talk straight to kids from the start: Many who knew him talk about how sweet, timid Daniel Striped Tiger was the "Neighborhood of Make Believe" puppet Rogers poured the most of himself into (something the filmmakers use during some animated transitions), and the specific scenes about Daniel's self-doubt and how he "tamed himself" become fascinating and thought-provoking.

It's a bit of a revelation, at times, even if Fred Rogers's goodness is something you take for granted, to see it assembled from just the right mix of archived footage, clips, and remembrances; kindness is not often presented as being this complex or deliberate. The guy was likely more and better than you remember, and it's thus kind of fitting that the film is more and better than you might expect.

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originally posted: 06/07/18 09:30:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2018 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/05/20 Justin R. A beautiful documentary in the neighborhood 5 stars
6/11/18 Bob Dog Awesome documentary about an awesome human being! 5 stars
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  08-Jun-2018 (PG-13)
  DVD: 04-Sep-2018


  DVD: 04-Sep-2018

Directed by
  Morgan Neville

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