I don’t typically talk about two films in one post, but there’s so much to love about both Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Hearts Beat Loud that it seemed only natural to write about them together.
The former is a documentary by Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) about Fred Rogers and the show he created, starred in and fought for for decades; the latter is a father/daughter story about music and growing up and family by Brett Haley (The Hero). Both exemplify the best of independent filmmaking, and both will renew your faith in the inherent goodness of the world and humankind, something we could use quite a bit of at the moment.
Neville, who in my opinion undeservedly won an Oscar for 20 Feet From Stardom in 2014 (the year Life Itself wasn’t even nominated), more than redeems himself with Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, turning his non-threatening, curious camera on the men and women who knew Rogers best and worked with him for years. The film doesn’t get bogged down talking too much about the friendly reverend’s upbringing and background; we get snippets here and there, enough to add context to Roger’s worldview. But generally speaking, Neville focuses on the decades-long run of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and the impact the show had on children, their parents and society.
The most moving moments come in the archival footage of Rogers interacting with children on set or at events and school visits. The man is sincerity personified, his gentle gaze consistently warm and welcoming no matter who he interacted with. With an unshakeable conviction in his believe that every child (black, white, able-bodied or not, rich, poor…every child) should be loved and supported, Rogers built a public television show—and a worldview, it could be said—unlike anything seen before or since. By tapping into his own vulnerabilities, he made it easier for us all to not only acknowledge our own but love each other through them. He chose every single day to lead with love, to build up rather than tear down, to embrace rather than push away. It’s no wonder the film is receiving as wholehearted a reception as it is, at a time when headlines and leaders disappoint day in and day out.
Hearts Beat Loud, which, like Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, may not be as universally beloved, but it is infused with just as much tenderness and humanity as the documentary. Nick Offerman (Parks and Rec) stars as Frank, a single father who owns a record store in Red Hook, Brooklyn. It’s his teenage daughter Sam’s (Kiersey Clemons) last summer before heading off to UCLA for medical school in the fall, and he’s decided he can’t keep up with the rent anymore, letting landlord Leslie (Toni Collette) know that he won’t be renewing the store’s lease.
If you’ve only ever seen Offerman as Ron Swanson, his thoughtful, vulnerable turn here as a man still grieving his wife and mourning a music career that never quite took off will serve as quite the breath of fresh air. Not to say that the film is all weepy and sad; far from it. Both he and Sam see potential for new love enter their lives, and the two really bond over their music, when a jam session inadvertently spawns a bit of a hit single. Sensing a chance of a lifetime, Frank—contrary to what most dads would likely do—tries to convince Sam to delay school long enough to play a few shows and see what they can make of their budding success. A young woman of her own mind, however, she is not hearing it; she’s got a dream of her own, one that seems a lot more attainable than stardom.
There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about Hearts Beat Loud; it’s a fairly straightforward narrative with sympathetic characters, a well-crafted story and a bit of humor for good measure (Ted Danson pops up as a bit of comic relief). In fact, it’s just this approachability that makes the film such a treat. Frank and Sam are just doing their best to navigate this latest chapter in their lives, the end of some things and the beginnings of others. In the end, it’s a story about love: loving something (or someone) too much; wanting (desperately) to be loved; and trusting that what we love most (people, passions, places) will be with us no matter where life takes us.
There’s a lot to see in theaters right now, from female heist films to animated superheroes and so much more. See all those movies; I’ve heard they’re great. But do yourself a favor and carve out an afternoon to take in a Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Hearts Beat Loud double feature. You’ll emerge from the theater with a renewed sense of optimism about our very nature, that we are much more capable of love than anything else, and that it’s always worth it to lead with that love at every opportunity.
Postscript…It’s not lost on me that, on Father’s Day, I’m writing about two films that center around father figures. Perhaps that’s another reason I like them both so much, reminders as they are of the good men out there in a time filled with so many examples of the opposite. Today isn’t traditionally a day I find much to celebrate; I haven’t exactly won the “dad lottery,” as it were. I can still appreciate what the real Mr. Rogers and the fictional Frank Fisher represent: stability and reliability and encouragement and support…and love.