Atlanta Film Festival Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Score: A-

Director: Morgan Neville

Running Time: 94 Minutes

Rated: NR

Forget your Avengers, your Deadpools, your Incredibles. Fred Rogers is the superhero we need right now.

Mister Rogers, as he was known to generations of kids, was a Presbyterian minister from Pittsburgh, who had a vision for a very simple show for schoolchildren. As one of the producers mentions, it shouldn't have worked: It wasn't flashy or particularly funny, and the soft-spoken Rogers wasn't anyone's first choice for a star. But by talking plainly to kids, and treating them as equals, he caught the imagination of children of every background. He also happened to be in the right place at the right time, as public television took off in the 1970s.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? focuses on the show's rise, but sticks around to show what made it truly special and enduring. Shows like this only stay on the air for 30-plus years if new kids continue to latch onto it. Rogers was something of a revolutionary, devoting multiple episodes of his show to tough themes like grief and divorce. He also made a commitment to diversity, dipping his toes in a pool next to his African-American cast member Francois Clemmons, while African-Americans were still being denied use of pools across the country. (Rogers' progressiveness had its limits, though, as Clemmons relates that Rogers asked him not to go to gay bars, since any ensuing scandal could end the show as they know it, as sponsors like Sears would likely pull their funding.)

This is a special doc, because it does show Rogers as a human, even without any shocking revelations or enormous character flaws. He was just a person who was committed to education, patient with children, and genuinely caring about all people. Won't You Be My Neighbor? doesn't shy away that his guiding principles came directly from his faith. But it also shows his doubts. During national crises, like the Challenger explosion or 9/11, he wondered if the world was too dark, and his light wasn't doing much good. Yet it was at these times that his family and co-workers emphasized the country needed him even more.

Even in death, archival footage emphasizes Rogers' gentleness. While he wasn't fond of violent cartoons, he rarely raised his voice and was never curt to a child. Even when black-hearted political commentators called him "evil" for daring to tell children they're special just as they are, he is the face of calm. And that extended to all the people he worked with. One producer knew instantly that when they encountered Westboro Baptist Church protesters at his funeral, the move was to go talk to them, not try to out-shout them.

And so the film leaves us with this notion, that kindness and empathy can still be our first response. Won't You Be My Neighbor? doesn't have to tell us that in an age of weekly mass shootings and a president who embodies the opposite of everything Fred Rogers stood for, that we can still be like Fred, and invite other people into our neighborhood.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.

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