Based on the true story of a conservative, small-town father who embarked on a soul-searching cross-country walkabout after his gay teenage son became a victim of high school bullying, Joe Bell would seem the very model of middle-of-the-road inspirational uplift. And to a degree, it is. After all, Wahlberg has shown a taste for mining real-life tragedy in films like Patriots Day, Deepwater Horizon, The Fighter and The Perfect Storm. But by the time the final credits role over photos of the real people behind it all, a quiet script and an earnest central performance have earned the film some genuine tears amid the Big Moral Message.
Wahlberg plays the titular Joe Bell, a macho, blustery, sports-loving father of two in rural Le Grande, Oregon. As the film gets underway, he’s on a mission to walk across America to raise awareness of his son, Jadin Bell (Reid Miller), who was the target of intense bullying—in person and online—in his redneck hometown. Bell pushes his tent and meager travel supplies along highways, refusing rides and stopping occasionally to give speeches on the topic of bullying. His lectures are awkward and halting. His audiences of teenagers, barely attentive. Joe’s message isn’t much more than a couple simple platitudes. He tells parents to love their kids no matter what. He tells kids to be themselves no matter what. But the message just doesn’t cut deep enough. And there those who could accuse Joe Bell, the movie, of having a similar shallow understanding of the subject.
As Joe travels across the backroads of middle America, he engages in a string of deep conversations with his young son, who shadows his every step. Jadin is emotional, soulful and capable of a joy that his father seems to have lost. It takes fully a third of the movie for Joe to admit, out loud, what the filmmakers have gone to little effort to conceal: Joe’s son is, in fact, dead—a victim of suicide.
Having Joe engage in long dialogues with his imaginary dead son is an easy gimmick. It’s also a simple way for the largely isolated protagonist to expose his inner thoughts and feelings. Joe, you see—you can’t really miss it, actually—is finally having all the heart-to-hearts with his son that he should have engaged in years ago. He’s bonding with Jadin. He’s learning to accept Jadin. He’s dancing in the rain to Lady Gaga with Jadin. Sadly, though, it’s far too late. Flashbacks give us context about their relationship. Mom (preferred Hollywood mom Connie Britton) is understanding of her son’s struggle. And dad, at least on the surface, tries his level best. When Jadin finally summons up the courage to tell dad that he’s gay and is being bullied for his sexuality, dad doesn’t retreat into kneejerk homophobia. But his “enlightened” response is to tell his son to simply go kick those bullies’ asses. Dad gets it, but he doesn’t get it.
As a simple parable of forgiveness, understanding and personal growth, Joe Bell does for homophobia what Green Book did for racism—distill it into a simple formula for the mainstream masses to digest. But where Joe Bell works best is on a lower, more subtle frequency. As Joe’s quest to traverse America continues, it becomes glaringly apparent that he’s not on a journey to enlighten people about the horrors of high school bullying. Sleeping by the side of the road, washing up in rest stop bathrooms and punishing his feet mile after mile, Joe is committing a major act of penance. He’s not the caring father he pretends to be. He’s shallow and unenlightened and, if we’re being completely honest, a pretty big bully himself. And he knows it. (A fact that the film’s original title, Good Joe Bell, drives home a little more clearly.) But he just can’t seem to course correct. Joe Bell is inspirational in the sense that it models what not to do in this sort of circumstance. Joe’s inevitable realization comes a bit late, particularly if you know how this story ends in the real world. As a cold splash of water to the face, though, the film succeeds.
The slow-moving script, courtesy of Brokeback Mountain writer Diana Ossana and iconic Western writer Larry McMurtry, isn’t as good as it should be (or as good as those resumes would indicate). Like Green Book before it, it’s not aimed at the demographic being discriminated against. Which is a shame. The 20-year-old Miller (best known for the Roku series “Play By Play”) is magnetic as Jadin and displays some real next-gen star power. But he’s not the focus here. A few deeper conversations, a few more probing questions—about Joe’s background, about his flirt with celebrity, about the near abandonment of his other family members—would have taken Joe Bell to another level beyond “heartfelt and well acted, but formulaic.”
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton
Now playing in theaters