Fred Rogers, as he always did with children, gives the little girl his full attention.
“I like you!” The girl, who is maybe six or seven, gives Rogers a bear hug.
This was the reaction children usually had to Mister Rogers, and it’s hard to think of anyone who deserved it more. This scene comes at the beginning of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Morgan Neville’s moving biography of a man who lived by the principle that children are just as deserving of respect as adults. This shouldn’t be a radical thought. However, the right-wing pundits who lambasted Rogers throughout the run of his groundbreaking PBS children’s show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, demonstrated both how little the world thinks of children, and how cruelty loves to masquerade as common sense.
An ordained Presbyterian minister with backgrounds in both puppeteering and music, Rogers was uniquely qualified as both entertainer and moral teacher for children. Despising the silliness and violence that marked most children’s TV, he made it his mission to create programming that would communicate with children about their most basic, important concerns. Such was always the goal of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which began its run on WQED in Pittsburgh in 1966. Mixing live performers with puppet characters, Rogers created a gentle, nurturing atmosphere that nevertheless did not shrink from hard topics. He knew such things frightened and confused children, and he strove to tell them the truth in ways that would both enlighten and reassure them. When race riots and scenes of war appeared in the news, he addressed them on his show. When Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were
assassinated, he addressed that too. On one program a quadriplegic boy was his guest, to demonstrate to his audience that disabled children were normal kids just like them.
Throughout Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. Neville stresses the steely backbone beneath Rogers’ calm, fatherly manner. Rogers made it a point of honor never to lose his temper, but when you see him testifying at congressional hearings about the future of children’s television, his forcefulness and strength of purpose come through. (Some of his co-stars make the point that the puppet characters on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood expressed different aspects of Rogers’ character; Daniel Tiger represented the gentle, inquisitive side of his nature, whereas King Friday XIII expressed the side who expected his orders to be obeyed.) Meanwhile, Rogers was a good enough sport to laugh at Eddie Murphy’s Saturday Night Live parody, “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood.”
The most moving section of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? depicts Rogers’ relationship with Francois Clemmons, the actor-singer who played Officer Clemmons on the show. At a time when racial hatred spewed across broadcast news programs (a time which our own sadly resembles), Rogers rightly considered it important to have a recurring black character he could invite into his home and soak his feet with. Rogers had more trouble with Clemmons’ gayness; part of that was generational, the greater part concern over the prejudices of the show’s underwriters and the right-wingers (prevalent to this day) on the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Nevertheless, as Clemmons recalls in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Rogers told him many times that he loved and supported him, no matter what. It took him years, he added, to realize that Rogers was
talking specifically about his being gay.
With the possible exception of Bob (Captain Kangaroo) Keeshan, children never had a more ardent or adept advocate on television than Fred Rogers. (Rogers and Keeshan appeared together in print ads toward the end of their lives, standing up as they always did for children and quality children’s programming.) Rogers died at 74 in 2003, and the final emotion of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is great sadness that such a fine, dedicated man should be gone from us. However, his image and his message remain. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, a cartoon offshoot of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, is still a fixture of PBS children’s programming. Meanwhile, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is already the most successful biographical documentary of all time, ensuring that Mister Rogers will remain a force for good for at least the next generation.
Two recent movies that speak very much to Fred Rogers’ concerns are Marc Webb’s Gifted and Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck, neither of which received the acclaim they deserved on their first release.
Gifted is the story of Mary Adler (McKenna Grace), an orphaned seven-year-old girl living in Florida with her Uncle Frank (Chris Evans). Mary is uncommonly gifted at mathematics and is offered scholarships to private schools. But Frank insists on keeping her in public school, and he has good reason for this: Mary’s mother Diane, a math prodigy in her own right, committed suicide when Mary was a baby. Frank is determined that his niece will have a normal childhood, unlike his sister.
This puts Frank at war with his mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), who pressured Diane to achieve and plans to do the same with Mary. Evelyn wants to gain custody of Mary, take her to Massachusetts, and enroll her in Harvard. Frank and Evelyn cannot be in each other’s presence without shouting insults and recriminations. Evelyn takes the case to court; realizing that the judge will reflexively side with Evelyn, Frank agrees to a compromise that satisfies no one, least of all Mary.
Gifted sounds like a junior-league Good Will Hunting in synopsis, but it is more than that. Webb and screenwriter Tom Flynn make the issue of Mary’s fate one of heartbreaking immediacy, and the cast—which also includes Octavia Spencer as a sympathetic neighbor to Frank and Mary—could not be better. In particular, McKenna Grace is as fresh and enchanting a child actor as has ever appeared on screen.
Neither Frank nor Evelyn has the whole answer about Mary’s upbringing, but it is apparent who loves her more. And that, as Fred Rogers would agree, overrides everything.
Wonderstruck is an altogether more mystical cinematic experience than Gifted. Featuring a screenplay by Brian Selznick based on his own novel, Wonderstruck tells the parallel stories of Rose (Millicent Simmonds) and Ben (Oakes Fegley), two children from different eras but with similar goals. Rose, a deaf girl living in the 1920s, is running away from her unsympathetic father in New Jersey to see her mother, a famous stage and screen actress, in New York. Fifty years later, Ben—who has just lost his mother—runs away from Minnesota to New York to find his father, whom he has never met.
Selznick was also the author of the original novel of Hugo, which Martin Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan turned into a hit movie. Wonderstruckmarks his first attempt to adapt one of his works to the screen, and he and Haynes keep the audience guessing to the end about how the parallel tales of Rose and Ben will connect. The story is enthralling, the end totally satisfying. Fegley and Simmonds are exceptionally talented young performers (Simmonds scored a hit earlier this year as the daughter in A Quiet Place), and there is an intriguing dual role for Haynes regular Julianne Moore, no fair saying what it is. Leading the audience down unexpected pathways, Wonderstruck is a wonderful story about the essential resilience of children.
Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace is also a film that is at least partly about the resilience of children, although its protagonist is older than those in Gifted and Wonderstruck. Thirteen-year-old Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) lives in a public park in Portland, Oregon, with her father Will (Ben Foster), a survivalist and Iraq War veteran. Tom’s mother is dead; Will, one of several veterans living in tents inside the park, is an apparent victim of PTSD. We are left to imagine what happened to him, but it is all too easy to guess.
Will and Tom live a relatively contented life in the park; Will schools Tom himself, and periodic hikes to the supermarket are their sole contact with the world outside. But one day Tom slips up and lets a park ranger see her. The police swoop down; Will is led away in handcuffs, and Tom is taken into protective custody.
Eventually Will and Tom are reunited, and social services settle them in a house on a Christmas tree farm in rural Oregon, where Will is obliged to work. Tom adjusts well to her new situation, starting school and even meeting a boy. But Will remains huddled in despondency, and one day he abruptly tells Tom to pack up—they’re leaving.
Debra Granik reassembled for Leave No Trace many of the same collaborators she had for her great 2010 film Winter’s Bone, including co-screenwriter and producer Anne Rosselini, cinematographer Michael McDonough and composer Dickon Hinchliffe. In her fiction and documentary film work, Granik has concentrated on the lives of society’s castaways, especially combat veterans and the rural poor. Leave No Trace could justifiably be said to be a synthesis of all her concerns as a filmmaker and a commentator on society. It is less overtly disturbing than Winter’s Bone, but horror and blood are the obvious subtext of Will’s silent despair, and that despair in turn is visited on Tom, who can have only a vague idea of what her father suffered.
Leave No Trace is a film of uncommon nuance and delicacy, which is probably why—despite its rare 100% Fresh rating from the Rotten Tomatoes website—it has made few waves at the box office. As Will and Tom go deeper into the cold, rainy woods of the Pacific Northwest, a pervasive sense of melancholy envelops them, and the audience, like a winter fog. Will’s inner wounds are too deep to heal, his isolation too profound to allow him to live in a world of people. This is his ultimate tragedy, as Tom grows old enough to have a will of her own and a need for human connection that he cannot fulfill.
Leave No Trace contains some fine supporting performances, especially one by Dale Dickey in a far kinder role than the one she played in Winter’s Bone. But the film belongs to Foster and McKenzie, and they are wonderful together. Foster, a vastly underrated actor, has been brilliant in every film he’s appeared in, including Hell or High Water, Hostiles, Kill Your Darlings, and the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Here, he is mesmerizing as a man who can tolerate nothing in life except the solitude he sees in the distance. McKenzie gives a consistently thoughtful, moving performance; she is a real find, on the order of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone.
Leave No Trace is a poignant film, and in the end an angry one. It is an act of advocacy for men like Will, whom society chewed up and spit out, and children like Tom, who deserved more than her father, or society, could give her. In this light, we can see the gentle, loving atmosphere of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as the act of defiance it fundamentally was.