Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

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Morgan Neville directs Won't You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary about the life and work of Fred Rogers.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? could have embraced Fred Rogers' teachings in its presentation.  The stillness and beauty he inspired is too often interrupted by talking heads on or off-screen.  This disrupts Mr. Rogers' serenity and, in its worst moments, director Morgan Neville and editors Jeff Malmberg and Aaron Wickenden craft montage that comes across as insincere instead of heartfelt.  Worse still, there are aspects of Mr. Rogers that are brought up only to be lightly brushed aside to keep up his aspirational image.

Still, this is a documentary about Mr. Rogers and you'd be hard-pressed to find another film this year that provides a comparable amount of sincerity, catharsis, and vulnerability.  The near wall-to-wall keys plunked down in the music by Jonathan Kirkscey along with choice selections from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood find an easy home with the older and more recent footage.  There are insights, some I had a sneaking suspicion about and others I was not prepared for, that keep intrigue up even when treading well-known territory.My two reactions are neatly split apart in Won't You Be My Neighbor?'s structure. When Neville focuses on the past, the improvisational nature of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and how they had to throw additions to the show together in a hurry - it has a dogged and lovable quality. This is much aided by the wealth of behind-the-scenes and candid personal videos of Mr. Rogers, his friends, and family.  There's enough material to show Mr. Rogers was never acting and when his interactions shift from children to adults the film provides some challenging perspective on emotional maturity.

"He was scarily open," we hear one adult remark of Mr. Rogers and his short-lived adult-focused show. It becomes easy to understand why they might be scared of him as they've lost the comforts of imagination and I start to think about how much of a sham most adults' idea of maturity is. The stories of on-set teasing are remarkable in showing how there's more honesty and maturity in seemingly immature moments, like the crew member who took a picture of his butt while wearing the mask of King Friday XIII. It's harmless fun, and the shift in demeanor when the crew discusses the photo versus becoming aware of their presence in the interview made me kind of sad - having to put on this pantomime of adulthood when there's nothing wrong with the fun they were having.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? is consistently intriguing when working in this space between people's expectations for one another because of Mr. Rogers. Not once does Mr. Rogers seem authoritarian or domineering but his wholesome sincerity puts many on-guard. Everyone tries to put something, or someone, they can't entirely understand into a package that makes sense to them. There's signs of hurt in Mr. Rogers' eyes when people question his motives or accuse (without exactly accusing) him of being gay. These are the glimpses into Mr. Rogers I was most grateful for and felt most connected (plus tearful) when Mr. Rogers' son finds a self-addressed letter laying all of his insecurities out in the open.

My problems started with an ill-advised montage. After explaining that Mr. Rogers was a life-long registered Republican, the film cuts to a series of extremely staged images of diverse children with Mr. Rogers reflected in their faces. This moment is so wrong from the artificiality, to the needlessly ham-fisted agitprop of bringing up Mr. Rogers' political affiliations at all, and sets the stage for Won't You Be My Neighbor?'s other misstep when everyone takes a moment of silence but forces smiles while the soundtrack refuses to shut up.This level of artificiality is poison to Mr. Rogers' sincerity, but the tricky situation regarding François Clemmons is more difficult to piece together because of the temporarily jagged emotional flow of Won't You Be My Neighbor? Clemmons tells the story of going to a gay bar and being told by Mr. Rogers that Clemmons could not go back while staying on the show. When next we see Clemmons, he's talking about how Mr. Rogers was the surrogate father Clemmons never had. The emotional disconnect is jarring straight from what feels like an uncomfortable revelation about Mr. Rogers to a soundbite with his wife about the gay friends they had before aiming straight at another story of Mr. Rogers as surrogate father to Clemmons. If this happened as Clemmons recounts, then it feels dishonest to tell only the inspirational part of the story while paying very little attention to the hard work of changing. If it didn't, I have to question its inclusion and uneven construction for an angry emotional beat that never comes.

It seems even the adults behind Won't You Be My Neighbor? couldn't fully reckon with Mr. Rogers' openness, sincerity, and the potential complications therein. Won't You Be My Neighbor? is intermittently a good documentary, often clashing presentation with subject, that focuses on one of the best humans to ever live on this planet. This makes it a wonderful calling card for those unfamiliar with Mr. Rogers, though a shade disappointing for anyone wanting a bit more from their documentaries.

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Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

Directed by Morgan Neville.

Posted by Andrew

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