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The Independent Critic

Fred Rogers (archival), Betty Aberlin, Christa McAuliffe, David Newell, Francois S. Clemmons, Joanne Rogers, Joe Negri, John O. Pastore, Kailyn Davis, Kailyn Orta, McColm Cephas, Jr., Riley Rayburn, Robert F. Kennedy, and Yo-Yo Ma
Morgan Neville
Rated PG-13
94 Mins.
Focus Features

 "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" Arrives in Indy at Landmark Keystone  
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It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?...

It's a neighborly day in this beauty wood,
A neighborly day for a beauty.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?...

I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you.
I've always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.

So, let's make the most of this beautiful day.
Since we're together we might as well say:
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won't you be my neighbor?
Won't you please,
Won't you please?
Please won't you be my neighbor?

Admit it. You felt something. 

Was it warm and fuzzy? Was it nostalgia? Was it some locked away childhood memory of a seemingly better time? 

No, wait. Maybe you are one of THOSE people. You know who I'm talking about. Maybe you're one of those people who always had lingering doubts about the man known as Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister best known to pretty much everyone in America as Mister Rogers. Maybe you still say to yourself that he had to be gay? Or worse? He couldn't possibly be real. 

While cynicism these days is understandable and even while alive Mister Rogers endured more than his share of gentle and not so gentle lampooning, the vast majority of America treasures the memory of Mister Rogers in much the same way we treasure chocolate chip cookies from our grandparents and going fishing with Pa. 

Directed by Morgan Neville, Academy Award-winning director of Twenty Feet From Stardom, Won't You Be My Neighbor? is an extraordinary documentary feature about the kind of human being whom it seems like doesn't exist anymore. When Mister Rogers sang "Won't you be my neighbor?" in that sing-songy way with a voice that comes closer to William Hung than Kelly Clarkson, you couldn't help but feel like he was singing it to you and you couldn't help but feel like he truly meant it. 

Not quite a true bio-pic and also not exclusively about the show that made Mister Rogers a household name, PBS's Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" is, instead, about this almost undefinable Neighborhood of Make Believe that somehow became real and the man who, despite working with a modest budget from his Pennsylvania studio his entire life, somehow made it all happen while also sharing simple lessons told simply in a way that was radical and visionary for America's adults and children alike. 

While Betty Aberlin, Lady Aberlin to fans of the show, respectfully declined to participate in the making of this documentary, she's seen here in abundant archival footage along with additional archival footage and live interviews with the late Rogers' wife, Joanne, along with such regular faces as Francois Clemmons and Joe Negri among others. 

If you're one of the many who've watched the trailer for Won't You Be My Neighbor?" and having to wipe away a tear or two from your eyes, rest assured that Neville has packed the film with many such moments. Won't You Be My Neighbor? both gently humanizes Rogers while also firmly reminding us of the many things that turned him into an iconic figure of childhood. 

Several interviews standout here including the often recognized but seldom seen in its entirety footage of Rogers seeking to secure PBS's federal funding by testifying by the gruff John Pastore and Congress. 

Needless to say, Rogers saved the day. 

There's also an abundance of footage and interview footage with Francois Clemmons, an African-American male and gifted singer who joined the show as a police offer and created, alongside Rogers, some of the film's most memorable statements on racism in the U.S. Fortunately, Neville doesn't shy away from another aspect of Clemmons, his being a gay male, and how Rogers both seemed to accept him "as is" but shied away from ever addressing homosexuality, or sexuality at all, on the show. It's clear from the interviews that Clemmons to this day holds Rogers in warm affection and, indeed, it would be hard to deny that any show on television, with very few exceptions, dealt effectively with homosexuality. 

This seemed to be just about the only subject matter that Rogers wouldn't tackle. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood premiered the same week as Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, an assassination that was dealt with on the show with an uncommon sensitivity and intelligence toward children and it's an approach that Rogers would maintain for the remainder of the show's run. 

Won't You Be My Neighbor? gives us gentle insights into the childhood struggles, mainly frequent illnesses, that fueled Rogers' immersion in creative expression while also drawing parallels between the beloved Daniel Tiger and Rogers' own life experiences and even insecurities. The film arrives in Indy on the same weekend that Incredibles 2 opens nationwide, a fact that would likely leave Rogers shaking his head and wondering why Brad Bird couldn't simply talk to the children. 

I found myself kind of wondering the same thing. 

Won't You Be My Neighbor? has already picked up a handful of awards, including the Truly Moving Picture Award from Indy-based Heartland Film, and seems destined to be remembered come awards season as it's unquestionably one of the best documentaries of 2018. Beautifully filmed and lovingly rendered, Won't You Be My Neighbor? may not change your world but it sure will make you feel a whole lot better about it. 

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic