Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Writers: Diana Ossana, Larry McMurty
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Connie Britton, Gary Sinise, Reid Miller
Synopsis: The true story of a small town, working class father who embarks on a solo walk across the U.S. to crusade against bullying after his son is tormented in high school for being gay.
Joe Bell initially premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in fall of 2020 under the title Good Joe Bell. Upon wide release the “good” from the title was dropped, a smart decision, considering the character Joe Bell in the film is not exactly depicted as someone who’s “good”. Joe Bell is certainly a roller coaster of an experience, with a multitude of positive aspects accompanied by just as equally negative characteristics, often coinciding and clashing with each other at the same time to make for an emotional journey that leaves you doing mental gymnastics afterwards.
Based on a true story, the film follows Joe Bell as he walks from La Grande, Oregon to New York City to help raise awareness for bullying after his son’s suicide, or as Joe Bell says in the movie “talking about bullying, for kids who might be different”. Joe’s journey is aimless and self-indulgent, as evidenced by the talks that he gives to people and his inability to enact any actual change when it’s truly important. It’s clear that Joe Bell doesn’t truly understand why he’s doing this, rather that he feels he must do something other than sit with his own grief at home. The first half frames Joe in an escapist fantasy, showing him walking alongside his son Jadin as if it’s a father/son hiking trip. It’s a strange choice for the film to put the plot point of Jadin’s death in the trailer, but it attempts to hide it in the film, not revealing that the son Joe has been walking with for half the film is just his own imagination of what his ideal son would be like.
Interspersed through this narrative are flashbacks to when Jadin was alive and facing the bullying that lead to his eventual suicide. Although these moments are incredibly melodramatic and cliche, they’re heavily based in reality and can be a bit triggering to LGBT folks watching who have had a similar experience. Certainly overdone, but they do a great job at portraying how difficult it is to grow up as an LGBT youth where you feel as an outsider to society and dealing with an unstable and unsupportive family. Ried Miller delivers incredibly tragic and authentic moments in these flashback sequences, somehow making the cliche dialogue feel so emotionally raw.
At the center of the film, Mark Wahlberg delivers an incredibly believable complex character in Joe Bell. Intensely unlikeable, Joe Bell is a man who deeply loves his family and his son but has absolutely no idea how to. It’s very obvious that his intentions are well meaning, but ultimately, he’s unsupportive and aggressive to his family, especially to Jadin while he’s alive. Joe Bell makes it clear throughout the movie that he loves his family, but it’s insanely clear that Jadin’s homosexuality makes him uncomfortable, and he doesn’t know how to properly deal with it or stand up for his son when Jadin needs it the most. Wahlberg somehow is able to take a character with so many abusive tendencies and layer them into a man who is just trying his best and failing miserably, creating a kind of anti-hero.
Wahlberg’s character narrative is easily boosted by what seems to be the intention of the filmmakers. It’s clear why this was originally titled Good Joe Bell, as it comes off as if the film is trying to get the audience to root for Joe and consider him a good father who’s just struggling. There are many scenes between Joe and Jadin on the road where they are able to communicate their problems with each other, as well as bond over simple moments that any gay son wishes he could have with his father. The end of the film delivers us a typical Hollywood cathartic emotional moment that feels like a forced character growth moment for Joe that needs to take place before the final blackout. As a character, Joe Bell doesn’t really get any kind of growth, but the film wants us to make us feel like he does somehow. The end of the film and the start create perfect bookends that are rocky and unsure of where they’re headed.
The cherry on top of the cake is the bonding moment that Joe shares with a sheriff near the end. It reeks of copaganda, and feels completely inappropriate in a film raising awareness for bullying against LGBT people, considering the history of violence that police share with the group along with other intersectional identities.
Joe Bell doesn’t really know what it’s doing, and honestly, I don’t really know what to make of it. There’s so much good the film is doing by showing how damaging bullying can be to LGBT youth, especially those living in unsupportive households. But there’s equally as much bad the film is doing by making itself almost entirely self-indulgent and focusing on a character that’s unlikeable and unchanging. The entire film is unfocused, creating a bit of a mess that left me rotating between rolling my eyes and having tears steaming out of them. Ultimately, audiences will be divided on this, or, like myself, will settle somewhere in the middle.