In the midst of the summer blockbusters, past all the superheroes, the big explosions, the spaceships and dangerous dinosaurs is some much needed calm. The need for peace and quiet is requested from, not just overworked parents of hyperactive kids and teachers of those same overactive kids, people who are tired of gigantic tentpoles. With major studios upping the ante nearly every week between Memorial Day (even before Memorial Day) and Labor Day weekend, it’s easy to grow weary of big budget films and movies in general. Thankfully, there is counterprogramming available, and at the top of the list is the superb documentary Won’t you Be My Neighbor?

Directed by Morgan Neville, Neighbor provides a beautiful look into the life of Fred Rogers, the man who loved, molded and shaped children everywhere. Neville re-introduces Rogers’ philosophy and stresses the importance of accepting, liking and loving children (and ALL people) for who they are. A simple phrase such as, “I like you,” can go very far, and Rogers was the man who liked everyone. His kindness is impressive and admirable, and he was brave enough to be a role model and advocate for them. He believed in communicating with, understanding and breaking through to children – Mister Rogers (as he is best known) is a rarity, the likes of whom we don’t see nowadays. In that respect, Neighbor is a much-needed and necessary elixir that can hopefully dispel all the hate and anger running rampant in our world.

Neville used behind the scenes footage, scenes from Rogers’ revolutionary program (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which Fred Rogers created, wrote, produced and starred) and interviews with family and friends who knew him best to provide perspective. Simultaneously, this is a perfect tribute to the man who was respectful, open-minded, caring, funny and, most of all, genuine.

I don’t remember specifics of Rogers’ delightful program – it’s been a long time since I last saw Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Neville filled in the blanks – Mister Rogers walked into his “home” while singing, then he traded in his blazer for a sweater, and finally changed from his dress shoes to loafers. It was Fred Rogers’ way of dispensing of formalities – he invited us to relax and hang out so he can talk to us. He talked directly to us, but of course Rogers also used his trademark puppets (i.e., King Friday XIII, Daniel Striped Tiger) to broach a myriad of topics, and he tackled some dark themes. But he always kept his child viewers in mind by talking with them, not at them. Fred Rogers was a family member for many, and his kindness made him to be the most trustworthy of people.

Admittedly, this is an emotional watch. Impressively, it’s that way because of all the overwhelming positivity within this 93-minute piece. Neville examines the ripple effects of Mister Rogers and all that he did, effectively solidifying the minister’s (yes, Fred Rogers was an ordained minister) legacy. The interviews provide more proof of that, and the testaments from Rogers’ wife, children, friends and co-workers also prove how genuine and authentic he was.

It’s obviously easy to heap deserved praise towards Fred Rogers and Neville’s film because it’s difficult to question such positivity - and that’s all I’ve done with this review. I can’t help it because Fred Rogers was a man who preached love and incorporated that into everything he did. That is one lesson we, as humans, have lost sight of. With Won’t You Be My Neighbor my hope is that we can practice loving everyone again and from now on. Fred Rogers simply got it – it’s about time we get it, too.

5 stars out of 5


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