Toward the very end of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville’s new documentary about Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood host Fred Rogers, audiences may experience a brief moment of panic.
Neville and his team avoid any and all references that are not contemporaneous to Rogers’ lifetime. They discuss moments like when Robert F. Kennedy was shot, a Florida motel owner angrily poured acid into a whites-only pool during a protest, and the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, because the children’s entertainment personality and his young viewers were alive then. Rogers helped these kids and their families cope with such tragedies instead of avoiding them outright. As a result, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? doesn’t shy away from them either.
But what about the intense racial hatred and political division incurred by the reaction to Barack Obama’s two presidential terms, especially those caused by now-President Donald Trump? (Or, for that matter, the incredibly tense climate America finds itself in this very moment.) Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood came to an end in 2001, and Rogers died two years later. Logically, this would prevent Neville from including any and all references to more contemporary matters, and yet he loosely broaches these subjects with his interviewees during the final minutes.
Thankfully, none of them mention Obama, Trump, or anything related by name, although the interviewer’s euphemisms aren’t fooling anyone in front of, or behind, the camera. It’s almost frightening, and then it’s nothing. Instead, the potentially disastrous topic transforms into an absolutely beautiful series of vignettes thanks to Junlei Li, the co-director of the Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College, and the late host’s widow, Joanne Rogers. This review won’t spoil what that the pair says, nor how Neville uses it as a prompt for himself and the other interviewees. But rest assured, it is a wonderfully sweet and soothing experience that will have a profound effect on theatergoers.
In other words, it will make you cry. Most of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? will probably make general audiences cry, especially those Gen Xers and Millennials who watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood at some point during their childhood. Why? Nostalgia, plain and simple. Like the ongoing revival/reboot boom in film and television, Neville’s documentary taps a specific vein many people probably haven’t tapped (or thought about) since they entered adulthood. Hence why this will attract a much larger audience than most documentaries (and result in plenty of happy studio and advertising executives).
The power of nostalgia notwithstanding, what Neville and the movie’s participants accomplish excels well beyond such a cynical view of sentimentality. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? harnesses the collective cultural memory of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and its titular host while openly inviting viewers to reflect on their own impressions from its subject. It’s a rather clever bit of filmmaking, especially since it never falls into the trap of manipulation that many other emotionally-fueled properties (like This Is Us on NBC) constantly suffer from. Neville, Junlei Li, Joanne Rogers, and the rest aren’t out to make everyone cry for the sake of crying.
It’s more of a cinematic group hug than outright emotional manipulation, and considering the aforementioned fear some will fleetingly experience toward the end, it’s a much-needed hug. Actually, it’s far more than that, because the filmmakers have somehow managed to condense Fred Rogers’ lifetime of positive messaging into one hour and 33 minutes. Neville pinpoints exactly what made the children’s entertainer and advocate tick across 31 seasons and 192 episodes and specials and, while documenting the man and his wonderful show, offers us some desperately needed healing.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? receives a limited theatrical release on June 8.