REVIEW: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Review by Dustin Heller (@eatindywatchindie on Instagram)

Since his passing in 2003, Mr. Rogers has seen a bit of a resurgence over the past few years.  He has been the subject of the a couple of intimate documentaries and will be portrayed by Tom Hanks in the upcoming biopic, You Are My FriendWon’t You Be My Neighbor? is the latest documentary about the late television icon from Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville.  Neville won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2014, as well as a Grammy Award for Best Music Film for his documentary 20 Feet From Stardom.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and has since been named a Truly Moving Picture by the Heartland Film staff.  The story is told through the eyes of Mr. Rogers’ family and friends supported by original footage spanning his lifetime.  Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language.

Fred Rogers knew at a young age that television was an excellent tool to reach children and to get his message out to the masses.  He started behind the scenes on a local show in Pittsburgh where he eventually introduced some puppets to fill in for downtime.  It was from there that he and his puppets took the world by storm with his kid-centered show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which became an instant success. Fred Rogers found his calling in life: to speak clearly and honestly to children in a loving manner.  The show ran for more than 30 years and this film tells the real story of the man who was everyone’s neighbor.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is an intimate and personal look inside the life of a true American icon and pioneer in the world of television.  Fred Rogers’ life was spent with the goal of making every child feel special and to know that they are perfect just as they are.  His message was simple and easy for children to understand, which made him beloved by kids of all ages.  The documentary delves into his humble beginnings on local television in Pittsburgh and the struggles for public television in general at the time.

Mr. Rogers even gave up the television gig for a while to pursue his degree at seminary, but once he figured out exactly who he wanted to be and his ultimate mission, the rest became history.  Mr. Rogers not only entertained children, he also talked to them about serious issues going on in the world in a manner they could relate to.  I think it’s safe to say that he was ahead of his time.

The film also shows the backlash that came from Mr. Rogers’ success: from the comedic parodies to the protests outside his funeral.  A man that deserved none of it was the butt of the joke more often than not.

On a personal note, I didn’t really watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child and didn’t know all that much about the show or the man before this film.  Unfortunately, my thoughts on Fred Rogers were somewhat influenced by these untrue rumors and awful parodies that haunted him.  It is in this vein that I’m happy this documentary was made and I hope that everyone has an opportunity to see it.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is the portrait of a man who did things the right way and should be honored for such.  It is a touching and moving film that is one of the best of the year to date.

Grade:  A

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? opens in Indianapolis on Friday, June 15