Movie Beat: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” offers gentle, loving insight into Mr. Rogers


By Jenniffer Wardell

 

Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language

Directed by Morgan Neville

Starring Joanne Rogers, Fred Rogers (archival footage), Joe Negri, David Newell, Yo-Yo Ma, François Scarborough Clemmons, Betty Aberlin (archival footage), McColm Cephas Jr and more

Grade: Three and a half stars

 

When I was a kid, I loved “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.” It wasn’t a cool show to love even then – my mother says that the other mothers would always ask why she didn’t encourage me to watch more popular shows – but that didn’t matter to me. I enjoyed everything about it, from the strange looking puppets in the land of Make-Believe to the short videos where they showed you places like the inside of a crayon factory.

Most importantly of all, I loved Mr. Rogers himself. I could be an anxious kid at times, but everything about him was so sweet, gentle and soothing it was hard to be nervous about anything. He always reminded you that there was kindness in the world, and we should always try to be good neighbors with each other. How could you not love someone like that?

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” which opens at Broadway Centre Theatre this weekend, brought all that love back to me in a rush. The documentary is a sweet, insightful, ultimately moving look at the mind and heart behind “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, alternating archival footage with interviews from some of the people who knew him best. The tone is very warm and welcoming, like the audience has been invited to join in with a group of lifelong friends who have gotten together for a chat.

The movie touches on Rogers’ entire life, but the greatest focus is naturally on Rogers’ experience with television and everything that came from that. The interviews include family, people on the show and those who were impacted both by Rogers’ life and work. There’s even some sociological discussion, touching on television trends and whether Rogers has influenced society as a whole.

In a way, though, the archival footage is even more fascinating. Some of it includes old episodes of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, including significant ones like the episode that aired after 9/11, but there are also clips of the old black-and-white show that Rogers and his wife did well before “Mr. Rogers.” There’s also plenty of behind-the-scenes footage of Rogers with the cast and crew of the show.

The documentary also gently addresses some “conspiracy theories” that have cropped up about Rogers through the years – from the stories about him being gay or a Marine to the idea that he’s somehow to blame for today’s narcissistic society – and has the people who knew them best gently deflate all of them. There’s nothing confrontational about it – Rogers himself wouldn’t want that – but the matter-of-fact tone from everyone is even more effective at quelling the rumors.

Still, the movie is hardly a whitewash, though Rogers was a good enough guy that even the darker moments hardly get dark. A gay cast member who worked with Rogers for several years highlights his changing views on homosexuality and some of the impact that came from that. It also touches on some career difficulties Rogers had, including a show aimed at adults that never had anywhere near the success or impact of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.”

The movie is also honest about Rogers’ insecurities and emotional struggles, including a childhood often spent alone because of illness, and stretches of simple animation communicate the feelings beautifully in a way that even children would understand. It almost seems like something Rogers himself would have used on his show, telling children that it’s okay to be sad and angry sometimes, and is all the more beautiful because of it. They also help make him seem more human, less perfect and more genuinely good, and ultimately seem all the more loveable because of it.

The animated sequences aren’t the only parts of the documentary that seem structured like they were meant to appear on the show. The movie wraps up a discussion about Rogers’ impact with a message of encouragement and a call to action, designed to send people out of the theater feeling hope and determined to do something to improve the world.

It feels, in a way, like a last, loving message from Mr. Rogers himself.

 

(Photo © Focus Features)

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