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Movie Review: "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" Is The Best Superhero Film of the Year

Starring Fred Rogers, Francois Clements, Betty Aberlin,  Joanne Rogers and Yo Yo Ma
Directed by Morgan Neville

Out of Four

Reviewed by Paul & Patrick Gibbs

If you grew up in or near our generation, there's a good chance that Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was an important part of your childhood. It certainly was for us. And while Fred Roger's sweet and kind persona seemed in his later years to be most often referenced in pop culture through roasting, there has been a resurgence of love for the venerable host. And it's much more than just the nostalgia boom of anything '80s or '90s kids loved as children: there's a recognition that Rogers is the perfect personification of everything our current troubled society is missing. He's not the hero we deserve (we don't come close to deserving him,) but the one we need right now. And Morgan Neville's documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? is a spellbinding portrait of an extraordinary soul.

Fred McFeely Rogers (yes, the "speedy delivery" guy was named after him) was a Presbyterian minister who had no interest in stardom, but every interest in using television to improve the lives of people, especially children. The documentary illustrates what we've heard from so many sources: Rogers really was as great a guy as he appeared to. Neville expertly weaves a tapestry of Roger's life and career, using archival footage and more current interviews, and it's anything but the dry and boring experience many viewers expect from a documentary (because they haven't been watching the really good ones.) In fact, it's the most truly engaging and moving film we've seen in the first half of 2018, and we have a hard time imagining anything in the second half will take its place.

Fred Rogers and Trolley. DING DING!
Highlights of clips from the show include a jaw-dropping, ahead of it's time sequence of King Friday deciding to build a wall to keep people he doesn't like out of his kingdom, and a profoundly moving sequence of Daniel Striped-Tiger (father of the animated Daniel Tiger the kids of today love) and Betty "Lady Aberlin" Aberlin singing a song called "Am I Broken?". And some of the most powerful interview segments involve Francois Clements, a black actor who played Officer Clements, a policeman who was partially a way for Rogers to portray a positive image to combat racism. Clements came out of the closet as a gay man well after the show ended, and the connection between the two types of tolerance and intolerance is thought-provoking and tear-inducing (and if the sequence about Rogers experience meeting KoKo the gorilla doesn't get you now, you need to get in touch with your emotions.) Honestly, we suspect most audiences will cry often throughout the film as we did. In fact, the we don't think there was a dry eye in the audience of only critics at a daytime press screening. And that's as unusual as it sounds.

Among all of the flashy and thrilling blockbusters of the summer (which we enjoy as much as anyone,) Won't You Be My Neighbor? stands out as not only a thoughtful alternative, but a rare film that's actually life-changing. If you don't come out of it with the desire to be a better human being, you were either perfect or a hopeless case going in. Please, take the time to fit this one in among the bigger releases.  You won't be sorry.

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