“If you really want to communicate, the most important thing is to listen.”
I’ve long believed that, more often than not, the quietest person in the room tends to be the one with the most to say. They aren’t timidly sitting there judging your every word. They are lifelong students – ministers of higher learning – digesting the conversation and thinking before they finally speak. What comes out doesn’t sound exuberant; if anything it’s profoundly simple and patient without a drop of condescension. This was Fred Rogers’ overall ideology and his outlook on life, and although Won’t You Be My Neighbor? somewhat muddles a message so perfect for our imperfect times, the film still quiets us with peaceful reassurance. In a world that’s grown so detached from reality, so faceless in its interactions, so numb to the feelings of pain and joy, WYBMN looks us in the eyes and says, “It’s you I like.” To that I can only reply, “ditto.”
There’s an honesty to WYBMN that you cannot fake or forge. As we’re told, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – a radically simple TV program from the mind of its eponymous and unassuming star – defied the expectations of early public broadcast television. Many saw the box as a gateway to shovel thoughtless drivel onto those who tuned in. For Fred Rogers, it was a tool to teach children about the importance of feelings, how to deal with the great catastrophe that is growing up, and how we’re all in this thing together. Born to a wealthy family and bullied as a boy, Fred attended the Presbyterian Seminary, eventually using this vocation to bring a necessary and fundamentally kind message to children across the nation. Unlike the vast majority of our over-populated planet, Mr. Rogers was able to grow old without becoming cold, and this optimistic outlook can be directly connected to his childlike nature. When so many of us become shut-ins and recluses and communal castaways, Fred continued to come knocking at the door, asking if we’d like to come out to play and to enjoy being in the presence of a new or old friend. You can’t slam the door in the face of a spirit this true.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor does feel a little too long given its relatively sprite run-time. Also, while its use of animated scenes to explore Fred’s childhood memories makes complete logistical sense, they’re sporadically deployed in a movie that seems to adhere to a strict structure. These are my two grievances with the documentary itself, and they’re no match for the overwhelming amount of empathy on full display. Sitting in the theater watching a wise man share candid and unquestionable truths with fellow audience members, the lights dimmed low and the emotions running high, I couldn’t help but think that I was in a safe space. That term has been greatly misconstrued and politically exploited of late. In WYBMN, the safe space isn’t free of conflict or confrontation, but instead is a place where we’re able to seek calm and comfort in times of need. Like a childhood game of tag in the backyard, the safe space brings temporary solace and respite all while belonging to a chaotic region. We gather our breath and jump back into the thick of things, knowing that safety is always within sight if we need to rest. The world is a messy place right now, and so is this movie, but the embracing nature of its kindness cleans it all up.
Politically undetermined yet incredibly socially cognizant, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? uses its title – and a delightfully childlike musical score – to ask the essential question that is the summation of its parts. As paradigm shifts in America (and the rest of the globe for that matter) continue to ebb and flow, and as our culture continues to evolve and to change, we’ve come to a breaking point. The tip of the iceberg isn’t hulking below the surface; it’s all there, in plain view, impeding the journey. But because WYBMN sails so slowly and talks so solemnly, it’s able to divert the path of tragedy. There it takes a break, changing a coat for a sweater and dress shoes for slip-on sneakers, and it grants us access to a minister who isn’t dolling out Communion wafers and wine, but simply rendered nuggets of complex truths. Fred Rogers suggested that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was an invitation of sorts. We’re all invited to the party, and it’s one I sincerely hope never ends.
“Love is at the root of everything. All learning, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.”
Rating: 4 out of 5