“If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right.” — Paddington Brown
A recent spate of humane and optimistic movies —short on discord, long on warmth, and explicitly about the goodness in people — suggests that our ongoing political debacle may be prompting some filmmakers to reconsider the types of stories they want to tell. At a time when the free world is run by a malignant cancer who can’t even shake hands with someone without trying to assert some Nietzschean kind of dominance, perhaps it’s not surprising to see an uptick in movies that subvert the idea that we have to tear each other down to prop ourselves up, or the idea that success is a naturally a zero-sum game.
Liberated from the film school dictum that movies are fueled by the chemical reaction between conflict and resolution, this new wave of nicecore cinema argues that kindness can be a transformative force unto itself. Even if the Trump era is regrettably still in progress, its pop cultural legacy may already be taking shape on the global stage.
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The evidence is everywhere, and it’s as sweet as a marmalade sandwich. Take “Paddington 2,” for example, a British movie that functions as a politely scathing rebuke to Brexit and the xenophobia that made it possible. Maybe the best film of 2018 so far — and definitely a future classic in the making — Paul King’s delightful sequel is pretty much the “Citizen Kane” of nicecore. Unlike “Citizen Kane,” however, it ends with Hugh Grant performing a musical number from Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” (an oversight that Orson Welles must have regretted until his dying day).
Unlike its predecessor, a vibrant family comedy that was nevertheless bound by the strictures of the hero’s journey, “Paddington 2” is free to follow a different and more emotionally dependent path. The protagonist is still motivated by a clear desire — Paddington wants to reclaim the stolen pop-up book he hoped to buy for his Aunt Lucy’s birthday — but the action is driven by the virtue he reveals in those around him. As his adopted father Henry Brown puts it: “Paddington looks for the good in all of us, and somehow he finds it.”
That’s what propels the plot forward. In fact, relying on the kindness of ex-strangers is literally how our favorite bear gets around his diverse London neighborhood. He hops on the back of a woman’s bicycle in exchange for a sandwich, and then gets a ride on Mr. Barnes’ garbage truck while he tests him on the Knowledge. He feeds a baguette to a stray dog named Wolfie because it’s simply the right thing to do, and Wolfie returns the favor by serving as Paddington’s personal steed during a chase scene at the end of the first act.
These aren’t just quid pro quo relationships, they’re what happens when members of a community welcome each other into their lives and allow themselves to be changed for the better. That’s how it goes when Paddington is wrongly jailed and draws the ire of fearsome cook Knuckles McGinty. Two pieces of bread and a smear of marmalade are all it takes for the ursine lad to free something from deep within the violent inmate. Knuckles responds in kind by literally freeing Paddington from prison, and is later inspired to betray his criminal ethos by going out of his way to save the bear from harm. Paddington’s compassion begets compassion, the way a rising tide lifts all ships, and everyone wins in the end (even the dastardly Phoenix Buchanan gets the chance to stage the show of his dreams).
That so much of this story is set in the clink helps to disarm one of the most natural assumptions about nice movies: They don’t have to rely on privilege, or exist in denial of real struggle. In fact, the best examples — the ones that are worth discussing in the first place, and call attention to the intrinsic value of these films — are endowed with a unique ability to address the struggles that shape them into existence. It’s in this way that a “kids’ movie” like “Paddington 2” is able to become as lucid and lasting a refutation of xenophobia as I’ve ever seen on screen.
Idealistic as it may be, the climactic scene where all of Paddington’s friends come together for a big surprise — a coterie of immigrants gathering to celebrate one of their own, and potentially even welcome another to the neighborhood — doesn’t invite viewers to hide from the horrors of our world, or to deny its problems for 90 minutes. On the contrary, they encourage us to take a more active role in it. It can be revelatory to see how empathy is able to drive a plot forward (or even sustain a film that doesn’t really have one, as was the case in Richard Linklater’s proto-nicecore hangout, “Everybody Wants Some!!”). Nicecore argues that kindness doesn’t have to be an escape — it can be a counteroffensive.
If nice movies are able to remain so entertaining, it’s because altruism isn’t a passive force. “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring,” Mr. Rogers used to say. “It is an active noun like ‘struggle.’ To love someone is to drive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and right now.” Actually, in keeping with Mr. Rogers’ habit of re-editing old episodes of his show to make them as inclusive as possible, let’s change that to “the way they are.” Of course, some of Fred Rogers’ most famous pearls of wisdom never required an update. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” he would tell people, “my mother would say to me: ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” And those are actions, too — the looking and the helping.
Mr. Rogers never really faded from public consciousness after his death in 2003, but it’s no surprise in these dark times to see that his gentle persona and humane philosophy is cresting back onto the shore with renewed force. Sometimes the helpers aren’t here anymore — sometimes they can only be found on our screens. The success of Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” a Sundance sensation that’s now on its way to becoming an indie box office powerhouse, proves that people are happy to take a hand up wherever they can get it.
Fred Rogers was the living embodiment of goodness — he was nicecore in a cardigan — and dire circumstances make it easy for a documentary to prey on our collective nostalgia for a man like that. If a TV star had to become President, why not him? But the beauty of Neville’s film is that it doesn’t take the easy way out. Mr. Rogers began every show by saying “Let’s make the most of this beautiful day,” but “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” never loses sight of the work required to fulfill that hope.
The film takes pains to depict how difficult things could be for its subject, and strains to humanize a figure who seemed to invite a hagiography — even Rogers’ widow, the unexpectedly caustic Joanne Rogers, shows up to dissuade us from thinking that her late husband was a saint. It’s not that he was hiding some terrible secret, but rather that his message would have no real meaning if the average viewer didn’t think they could make it their own. After all, a neighborhood is just a collection of people, with a bear or (a sock puppet) sometimes tossed in for good measure.
Perhaps the most relevant thing about Neville’s film, however, is the simple fact that he decided to make it now. A guy who specialized in music docs like “20 Feet From Stardom” before the toxicity of modern discourse encouraged him to pivot towards television, Neville’s previous film prior to “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” was 2015’s “Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal.” That movie looked back at the 1968 debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal in order to pinpoint them as ground zero of of our modern media landscape, the germ of a disease the whole world suffers from today. The Trump presidency, and Fox News’ resulting transmogrification from right-wing soapbox to state TV, has only served to bolster Neville’s argument and certify the cynicism that he caught on the airwaves.
In that light, it’s especially telling that Neville decided to go in the opposite direction for his next project, staying in the same arena but rooting for the other team. He committed to a Mr. Rogers documentary in early 2017 and raced to finish it before it was too late. The stark contrast between these two films — in addition to the urgency with which Neville jumped from one to the other — articulates the need for something like nicecore.
Moreover, it clarifies why a critical mass of new movies fitting that description might be worth noting, even though Western narratives have a long history of privileging virtue (even if only as a moral at the end of a story). Neville has said, “We live in a culture that incentivizes disgraceful behavior,” and “Best of Enemies” was intended to make that clear. But acknowledging that fact doesn’t require us to surrender to it. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” argues that our culture is an active battleground, and the tide can always turn the other way so long as we remember that kindness is something to be fought for.
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It’s an idea that’s on full display in another indie currently tearing up the charts: Brett Haley’s “Hearts Beat Loud.” Such a sweet little movie that it could’ve been a nicecore parody in lesser hands, this scrappy father-daughter story has all the hallmarks of a traditional Sundance hit. It’s hard to even read about it without rolling your eyes: Nick Offerman plays a widowed sad sack whose Red Hook record store is going out of business (even though the landlord is a sweet and single Toni Collette). Kiersey Clemons plays his bi-racial daughter, a naturally talented musician who’s about to follow her pre-med dreams to UCLA. In a desperate attempt to keep the last scraps of his life together, the dad cajoles his daughter into starting an indie rock band with him. Some very catchy cuteness ensues.
Clemons has one hell of a voice, and songwriter Keegan DeWitt gives her some very catchy tunes to belt out while Offerman strums along, but — spoiler alert — there isn’t a hook in the world that can stem the tides of time. Dad still can’t make rent on his store, daughter still wants to be a doctor, and Spotify residuals aren’t enough to make her stay home. But the music they create and perform together gives these characters a language that they never had before; it gives them a way to process what they’ve lost, and to sanctify what they’ve been able to forge together.
As a result, the movie highlights one of nicecore’s greatest virtues: These movies often feel more realistic than conventional dramas because they avoid (or at least downplay) the clear trajectory of forced narrative conflict. It’s a lot easier to believe in a happy ending when it doesn’t immediately follow some kind of dumb misunderstanding.
It’s enough for Haley that parent and child ultimately learn to hear the goodness in each other. The mutual understanding that forms between them isn’t a catalyst for some greater action, but rather a goal unto itself. It brings to mind another of Mr. Rogers’ most active pieces of advice: “In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”
Now more than ever, movies excel at trapping people in a dark room for 90 minutes at a time and forcing them to disconnect from the cacophony of bullshit that’s made it so hard to hear the harmonies of the modern world. Simple or naïve as that may sound, the medium is uniquely geared towards retuning our minds, and audiences are rewarding skilled filmmakers for taking positive advantage of that. People want to feel good, but they need to believe in the reasons why, and our bullshit detectors are better than ever.
There’s a reason why Kogonada’s quiet, sensitive, Ozu-inflected “Columbus” — a contemplative drama about absence and architecture — became a breakout word-of-mouth hit last summer. Or why Agnès Varda’s ebullient “Faces Places” played in theaters for months on end, easily becoming the highest-grossing documentary in its distributor’s history. There’s a reason why Ruth Bader Ginsberg is currently the indie box office’s biggest star with “RBG,” and why an accurately titled Claire Denis movie called “Let the Sunshine In” earned more in the U.S. than most of the director’s previous movies have made here combined (even if that’s really just a damning statement about how we’ve failed her other films).
At a time when the major studios are relying on spectacle to sell tickets, kindness has started to emerge as a similar force — at a time when it’s increasingly difficult to find in the newspapers or on TV, kindness has become a spectacle of its own. The helpers are out there, but it’s a lot easier to remember what they look like and why we need them when they’re blown up on the big screen. People want to see that in the movies so they can see it in each other. If nicecore continues to pay off, blossoming from a trend (or think-piece neologism) into a genuine wave, perhaps we’ll even be able to help ourselves.