Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry, the duo that wrote “Brokeback Mountain,” reteam for similar territory with “Joe Bell” a film about teenage suicide and a father coming to terms with his gay son’s death. Based on a true story, the film stars Mark Wahlberg as the title character who decides to walk across the country to speak out against bullying in memory of his late son. Wahlberg, who’s tackled real-life stories in the past is a bit out of his league here, but Reid Miller is exceptional, delivering a heartbreaking performance in the film directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (“Monsters and Men”).
The tragic story of Joe Bell and his son Jadin took place in 2013. It deserves to be told with its powerful message of homophobia and bullying. This is why despite a few setbacks, Cary Joji Fukunaga (“Beasts of No Nation”) was originally tapped to direct the film back in 2015 (he is still attached as a producer), it eventually made it to the big screen premiering at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival under the title “Good Joe Bell.”
The setting is the small town of La Grande, Oregon with a population of roughly 13,000. Jadin Bell as played by Reid Miller in a beautiful breakout performance is a self-assured, loving, and spirited soul who in the face of adversity never stopped being his true self. He wasn’t interested in hunting or fishing, his loves included cheerleading and Lady Gaga. Like many LGTBQ teens, Jadin was bullied, ridiculed, and physically assaulted in scenes that are difficult to watch.
Wahlberg, on the other hand, seems miscast as Joe Bell. He’s a good ole boy who loves the outdoors, football, big-screen TVs, and he has anger management issues. You’re probably thinking it sounds like a role right up Wahlberg’s alley and it is up until the point where Joe attempts to understand and deal with Jadin’s death by embarking on a cross-country trek for his son.
It’s a very emotional story and yet Wahlberg seems to be holding back never letting Joe’s recessed feelings surface. The actor’s machismo never takes a hit. When Jadin is heckled by people in the stands while he’s cheerleading at the local high school football game, Joe grabs his wife Lola (Connie Britton) by the hand and storms out of the stadium. It would have been great to see Lola insist on staying to support her son but just as Jadin was being bullied at school, the film implies that Joe was a bit of a bully as well to his wife and two sons.
In another scene, Joe gets embarrassed by Jadin practicing his cheers in the front yard and yells at him to go into the backyard. Later in the film when we see Joe trying to come to grips with his son’s sexuality by singing Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” it feels forged. Joe’s speeches against bullying at churches and high schools are also emotionless and feel wasted.
“Joe Bell” could have been a much better film, the true story deserved that. Wahlberg is a good actor, yet there is no depth to his performance, and we’re not convinced that Joe felt remorse for his past actions. By the film’s end, I wasn’t even sure that Joe had accepted Jadin being gay. There’s also a scene where Joe visits a gay bar while walking from Oregon to New York (which is where Jadin eventually wanted to live) that feels bogus and melodramatic.
Gary Sinise has a nice cameo as a sheriff who encounters Joe on the side of the road. He offers him a hot meal and the two have a conversion about their sons in one of the film’s genuine moments, while Connie Britton isn’t given much to work with as the supportive mom.
The message behind “Joe Bell” supersedes the film’s pitfalls. Reid Miller’s moving performance deserves to be seen.
(2 ½ stars)
Now showing in theaters