Family Movie Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (NR)

Kernel Rating: 5 out of 5

MPAA Rating: NR       Length: 118 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 13+. This documentary about Fred Rogers, known to generations of children as Mr. Rogers, focuses on his life, what inspired him, and how he approached his classical television show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Much like his show addressed concepts like racism, divorce, death, and the Vietnam War, the documentary discusses those subjects, too. There is some cursing and language; a few goofy pranks, including a bare man’s butt; a discussion of Sept. 11, 2001, and how that affected Rogers; and footage from his memorial service, which was protested by anti-LGBT demonstrators who used hateful and homophobic speech against Rogers, which you see them yell and display on signs.

‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ is a meticulously crafted portrait of Fred Rogers, a man who believed deeply in the value of love. The kindness and compassion the documentary displays for its subject, and which Rogers in turn extended to generations of children, help make this film one of the best of the year.

By Roxana Hadadi

WontYouBeMyNeighbor ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReview“Love is at the root of everything – love, or the lack of it,” says Fred Rogers in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Rogers believed deeply in love, in how necessary it was for children, how it could heal deep wounds, and how it shaped childhoods and entire lives, and he displayed that in every single episode of the PBS classic “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” For years, Rogers met children at their level, treating them with understanding and respect, and Morgan Neville’s documentary provides a comprehensive look into what inspired the beloved figure.

There is no real drama in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and only one revelation that is slightly shocking; this isn’t really an investigative work interested in unearthing any scandals. Instead, this is like a love letter from Rogers to us, pulling from archival footage, old interviews, episodes of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and other programs that Rogers worked on, as well as interviews with Rogers’s widow, sons, and the cast and crew members who worked on his shows.

The medley of material reveals the patterns of Rogers’ work and life: how he combined his background in child psychology and his training as a mister to really listen to not only children, but adults, too, to friends and family members, using silence to help them open up; how his patience and calm authority defined him as a television personality but also as a father, husband, and public figure; and the little quirks that made him unique, like an obsession with the number 143 and the variety of voices he used for the puppet characters on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

It’s all enlightening and deeply moving, and viewers who have memories of specific episodes of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” will enjoy seeing how Rogers approached the creation of his show and the themes he decided to tackle with unwavering compassion. The documentary breaks things up with animated vignettes featuring the character Daniel Tiger, who is now the focus of a PBS show for a new generation of audiences, and how Tiger often served as a conduit for Rogers’s own thoughts is nicely illustrated here.

“Was he that way in real life?” is a question raised about Rogers in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, and Neville (who previously directed the Oscar-winning "20 Feet From Stardom") answers it with nuance and respect. The documentary is a reminder that kindness and compassion can exist in even the darkest of circumstances, and that message is one we need not only right now but all the time.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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