Synopsis: An Oregonian father pays tribute to his gay teenage son, embarking on a self-reflective walk across America to speak his heart to heartland citizens about the real and terrifying costs of bullying.
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton, Maxwell Jenkins, Morgan Lily, Gary Sinise, Tara Buck, Ash Santos, Igby Rigney, Cindy Perez
Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Part of this review is going to include a minor spoiler of the movie, because it will be next to impossible to discuss it in any depth without including this bit of information. It’s nothing that hasn’t been shown in the trailer but on the off chance you have yet to see the preview or don’t know the basic premise of Joe Bell, feel free to stop reading now and come back once you’ve watched it.
You ready to move on?
We’re forging ahead with this review, so be ready.
Living in a small town in the northeast corner of Oregon, Jadin Bell was singled out for being different. The only openly gay student at his high school, he was a member of the cheerleading team and while his parents did their best to support him in the way that they knew how to, lack of true understanding of what it meant to be an ally left Jadin without the resources he needed to deal with the bullying he endured at school. With few friends and an administration that didn’t stand up for him, he saw little hope for the future. At fifteen, he hanged himself from the school’s playground equipment,
A devastating loss for his family, Jadin’s death sends his father Joe (Mark Wahlberg, All the Money in the World) into a depression. Always prone to moody outbursts, he directs his anger at Jadin’s younger brother (Maxwell Jenkins) while his wife Lola (Connie Britton, This is Where I Leave You) looks on, unable to help her husband out of this darkness. Then, an idea occurs to him. Joe didn’t stop the bullying when Jadin came to him and asked for help, but he could tell others about his son and what could happen if harassment went unresolved. He’d further hammer home that point by walking from Oregon to New York, where Jadin hoped to go to college after graduation. As Joe makes his way across the country, he meets a number of individuals from all walks of life that have been in his shoes in one way or another and the impact they have on his life continues his own evolution of thinking. Accompanying him at times in Joe Bell the film would be Jadin himself.
The conceit of a dead character popping up to speak to a live one and acting as a kind of guide from the other side isn’t anything we haven’t seen done countless times before. In fact, since I saw Joe Bell earlier this week, I’ve already watched another movie coming out in early August that employs the same narrative gimmick…sometimes to better effect. What the speaking spirit often accomplishes for the screenwriter is the opportunity to have a two-way conversation on a solo journey of self-discovery. The walk that Joe Bell is taking is purportedly to raise awareness on high school bullying and the devastating effects it can have, but it is more about his own atonement than anything else. Having Joe’s deceased son Jadin present for long stretches of his walk, acting as a challenging sounding board adds to that immediacy for an emotional response from an audience but doesn’t always further the overall journey from a storytelling perspective.
Written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, both of whom won an Oscar for adapting Brokeback Mountain in 2005, I believe Joe Bell wants to tap into that same poignancy which made that earlier work such a memorable milestone in modern cinema. Unfortunately, though the true story on which the film is based is incredibly moving (and has more surprises than you may initially think), the way it has been assembled as a film doesn’t open itself up in the same kind of way that Brokeback Mountain did. Though both films have a timeline that jump back and forth, Joe Bell’s important items have happened long before the movie begins and we spend a good sixty-minutes piecing together what led up to the events in La Grande, Oregon in 2013.
It’s not meant to be a pleasant watch and I’m not suggesting it should be. I’m not even saying the events should be laid out in chronological order. The true element to the story means that certain events need to stay as-is and I appreciate that Ossana, McMurtry, Wahlberg, and director Reinaldo Marcus Green resist the urge to give Joe a huge speech where he suddenly becomes a great orator. This is a man that isn’t good with words or grand statements. He’s blunt, rough around the edges, and often says one thing when meaning the other. So many of us have parents or know parents that are like that, and Joe Bell is no different. What happens is that there begins to exist a disconnect between the emotion of the piece and the emotion of the true story it’s based on. Things start to pile on as the film nears its conclusion and you can start to feel Jadin’s voice drowned out amongst all the mawkishness of the redemptive arc Joe is undergoing. Is this Jadin’s story we’re meant to hear and understand or Joe’s?
In the title role, Wahlberg gives it his all as the dad trying to do good but missing the mark because when he didn’t know what else to do he just resorted to how he was raised. I think Wahlberg did service to the real person and kept it as true as could be and that’s to be respected. Reid Miller as Jadin has a bit of a wider field to play with and this is the performance that should be studied carefully. His flashback scenes are deeply emotional and hard to watch, considering you know how it all turns out. The “on the road” scenes where he’s tagging along as his dad goes on his cross-country walk are a little less focused. I’m not sure I needed to hear the two actors do quite so much of Lady Gaga’s ‘Born this Way’ but then, I digress. There’s never a time when Britton is not completely dependable and a value-add to a film, but I was genuinely surprised when Gary Sinise (Ransom) showed up as a small-town sheriff with a tender-heart. It’s a small part in a much larger story, but in a short amount of screen time Sinise makes a big impression.
Originally thought to be an Oscar play for Wahlberg before the pandemic hit in 2020, the mediocre reception Joe Bell received when it played the festival circuit (when it was called Good Joe Bell) last year put that dream to rest and that’s really for the best. This is a film that shouldn’t be made for awards consideration. Joe Bell would be a fine model to point to as someone that attempted to make good of something bad and the movie largely follows suit.