“The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved, and capable of loving.” It’s statements like these – sweeping, painfully earnest, and deeply resonant – that characterize Morgan Neville’s latest documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The film follows the life of the late Fred Rogers, host and showrunner of the influential children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, yet it’s not so much about Fred Rogers the man as it is about the philosophy he birthed and tried his hardest to live by through his work. Neville knows, as all documentarians should, that the best way into a person’s life is through the world they build for others. By taking this approach, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? evades all the myth-making and sentimentality that once seemed inevitable in reflecting on the life of someone as venerated and impossibly good as Rogers, resulting instead in a film overflowing with true emotion and poignant, necessary lessons for the American future.
In its structure and storytelling approach, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? doesn’t mess with a sure thing. It presents Fred Rogers life chronologically, beginning with his well-off but sickly youth in Pennsylvania, onto his schooling at Dartmouth and later seminary in Pittsburgh. Old footage is intercut with talking heads from a cast of characters: Joanna Rogers, Fred’s wife, Francois Clemmons and Joe Negri, actors on Mister Rogers Neighborhood, and even Yo-Yo Ma, a personal friend and collaborator. Although verging on cutesy, a handful of sequences featuring an animated version of Daniel Tiger present events from Fred’s childhood as if they were just puppet skits in his show instead of real memories, bringing levity and childhood wonder to moments of real sadness (much like director Issa Lopez did in this year’s fantasy-horror Tigers Are Not Afraid).
This concept of placing value on how a child thinks and feels is central to the film, as it was a tenant of Fred Rogers approach to education and programming throughout his life. Interviews with child psychologists and educators present Fred Rogers as not just an entertainer and fuzzy father figure but as an academic, a professional man with a professional understanding of child development and the necessities for growth at all stages of life. This section of the film is eye-opening for viewers who watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as small children, never having seen Fred Rogers as more than a goofy, smiling face on their television, and grounds the host’s feel-good energy in concrete, scientific methods.
Although Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is far from the first documentary to use one man’s life to contextualize the tumultuous events of 20th century America, its use of old news footage and historical benchmarks somehow feels essential, especially watching from this troubling vantage point in American history. As Mister Rogers uses puppets and stories of a fearful king to explain the Vietnam War and assassinations to children, Morgan Neville seems to be using his film to explain our present moment back to us. Most notably, the film offers eerily prescient commentary on American xenophobia and the family separations occurring at the border today, separations that will have a profoundly damaging impact on the mental and emotional wellbeing of those children for their entire lifetimes.
The movie also argues, quite literally in its final moments, that if Fred Rogers were alive today, he wouldn’t have all the answers. He would be horrified by the language and actions of our President, by gun violence, by discrimination, but he would be as angry and lost as anyone. It’s hard to hear that an eternally comforting presence like Fred Rogers can’t save us from ourselves, but also does remarkable work in humanizing a god without tearing him down – and still offers hope in the question, “What are you going to do about it?”
Whether you grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or this is your first time hearing about it, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? will probably make you cry. I don’t know exactly why – we could call one of the psychologists in the film to figure it out – but I wept through the entire thing, only pausing briefly during more lighthearted moments. Perhaps it’s that Fred’s sing-songy voice is so beautiful and so memorable. Perhaps it’s because I’m full of my own doubts and fears about the future, and that Fred’s philosophy feels like a solution to those inner (and outer) demons. Or perhaps it’s just that powerful to listen to someone tell a child, and tell you as a spectator, that you’re special, your feelings matter, and you’re loved just the way you are.