Won’t You Be My Neighbor? or, The Nuances of Compassion

Image courtesy of Focus Features.

*** (out of 4)

On the surface, Morgan Neville’s new documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, might appear to be yet another misbegotten piece of well-intentioned but cloying glop. The subject of the film, after all, is Fred Rogers, the television host who won the adoration of an entire generation of Americans with his childlike smile, aw-shucks persona, and ability to sing things like “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you!” The movie’s trailer, moreover, isn’t exactly an exercise in restraint. In its usage of sentimental music – plus blurbs that prominently feature words like “kindness” and “empathy” – it makes the film out to be the latest exemplar (after last May’s RBG) of nauseatingly fawning idolatry.

Fortunately, the good news is that Won’t actually turns out to be anything but schmaltzy, thanks in large part to Neville’s willingness to expose Rogers’ imperfections. As many of the film’s interviewees eagerly point out, Rogers frequently used his show, the creatively named Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, to advocate causes like racial equality, pacifism, and disability rights. Even so, we learn that Rogers’ form of tolerance didn’t necessarily extend to the LGBT community. After one of Mister Rogers’ cast members was caught at a gay bar, for example, we learn that Rogers requested that he stay in the closet – and he even encouraged said actor to marry a woman. Additionally, Neville acknowledges the possibility that Mister Rogers might have had unwanted side effects on its viewers’ psychology: as he shows us, in fact, some posit that Rogers’ openly expressed belief in children’s “specialness” contributed to the spread of the so-called “narcissism epidemic.”

Aside from offering a nuanced characterization of his subject, Neville also demonstrates a laudable awareness of the limitations of his argument. The central claim of his film is that Mister Rogers embodied a meaningful and powerful form of compassion. But even as Neville advances this idea, he also recognizes that it’d be a stretch to say that Rogers’ compassion had a significant impact on society as a whole. At one point, for instance, Neville brings up 9/11, noting that even Rogers himself viewed the event as a rebuke to his efforts to promote tolerance and love. Similarly, at the close of the documentary, the interviewees all speculate on what Rogers would have made of Donald Trump, a man whose success also seems to repudiate everything that Rogers stood for. Neville clearly respects Rogers, in short, but in a welcome sign of intellectual humility, he never tries to oversell Rogers’ importance– and the resulting film is much better off because of it.

Image courtesy of Focus Features.

Despite its refreshing embrace of complexity, however, Won’t is ultimately held back by two major flaws. First, Neville provides a disappointingly superficial depiction of Rogers’ personal life. The film occasionally mentions how Rogers was bullied as a kid, and its roster of interviewees includes several members of Rogers’ immediate family. Yet even with these efforts in its favor, Won’t never succeeds in separating Rogers’ private identity from his public, on-screen persona. To be sure, movies that try to analyze their subjects’ personal lives or inner motivations often get bogged down in shallow “pop” psychology; Neville always seems aware of this, and he’s understandably quite wary of repeating this error. But when you consider that his self-proclaimed intention in making Won’t was to uncover the “real Mr. Rogers,” it’s frustrating that Rogers still feels like a somewhat mysterious figure at the film’s end.

The second place where Won’t comes up short, meanwhile, is in its refusal to substantiate its claims about how Mister Rogers affected its audience. As mentioned, a key part of Neville’s argument revolves around the notion that Mister Rogers left a lasting mark on its young viewers’ emotional and personal development, even if the show was ineffectual vis-à-vis larger society. But aside from briefly touching on the story of Jeff Erlanger, a quadriplegic who once appeared on Mister Rogers, the film largely just sticks to interviewing Rogers’ family members and former colleagues. And while their assertions regarding Rogers’ importance and goodness sound compelling, you’d feel much more persuaded if those statements were backed up by testimony from people who actually watched Mister Rogers as kids.

Still, on balance, the good things Neville does in Won’t largely outweigh the bad. Unlike many recent films (e.g. RBG, Coco), Won’t doesn’t solely rely on its supposed “relevance” to the Trump era to win us over; instead, Neville presents a substantive analysis of Mister Rogers’ merits and limitations. Moreover, as mentioned previously, Neville also understands the crucial fact that uplift and complexity are not mutually exclusive: if anything, in fact, his portrayal of Rogers is all the more inspiring for its refusal to lapse into sycophantic adulation. Whether you’re one of the millions of kids who grew up with Mister Rogers – or, like this reviewer, a total stranger to the show and its widespread appeal – you’ll thus find Won’t to be a remarkably enlightening watch. And in the end, you’ll leave feeling quite glad that you weren’t scared off by the film’s needlessly syrupy marketing.

Image courtesy of Focus Features.

***

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

Running Time: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13, “for some thematic elements and language.”

Produced by: Morgan Neville, Caryn Capotosto, Nicholas Ma

Directed by: Morgan Neville