directed by Morgan Neville
Hot Docs, the Canadian International Documentary Festival, runs April 26-May 6, 2018 at Toronto's Bloor Cinema. Visit the fest's official site for more details.
by Angelo Muredda It says a lot about the ideological thinness of the Resistance™ against the current American administration that the basic dignity of a lifelong conservative-values Republican gets elevated to the most rarefied heights in Morgan Neville's Won't You Be My Neighbor?. Though nominally a celebration of the life and storied career of children's broadcaster Fred Rogers, anchored in present-day talking-head interviews with collaborators and friends that threaten at times to bludgeon the delicate and achingly sincere archival footage of Rogers's show "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood", Neville's film has a bit more teeth as a manifesto for how children's educational programming that resists the trends of busyness, noise, and violence can function as a form of public service, instilling values like neighbourly stewardship and mutual respect.
There's something genuinely fresh about the idiosyncratic, retro tenor of that footage, a sense that we're watching the first ASMR for children--or, as THE FILM STAGE's Dan Schindel astutely put it, "slow cinema for tots." That makes it all the more deflating when the aforementioned reel, and its rare historical example of how to take kids seriously as potential ethical consumers of television, is immediately cushioned and nullified by the explanation around it. This is a film that could use its own imaginative time-outs and procedural digressions--its own egg timer tutorials. In the absence of anything that formally daring, what we have is a serviceable but timid portrait of a children's entertainer whose methods were (if we can believe what we are allowed to process on our own) quietly radical, however genteel they might have seemed under the host's dusty khakis and scratchy knit sweaters.