A movie like Joe Bell should’ve been better. With a cast that includes Mark Wahlberg, Connie Britton and Gary Sinise, it could’ve been something better, especially given the script co-written by Larry McMurtry. But it falls apart because it doesn’t know what it wants to be.
Spoilers ahead for this review but it’s the only way to write it. Wahlberg plays the titular character, a blue-collar type from Oregon who is walking across America to raise awareness for anti-LGBTQIA bullying. Sadly, Joe’s son, Jadin (Reid Miller) has killed himself. And in his grief, Joe decides to do something about it.
The movie cuts back and forth from Joe’s time on the road, where he carries on imagination conversations with Jadin (which are the highlights) and the earlier days when Jadin must deal with the conservative bigotry of northeastern Oregon. It’s evident that Joe and his wife, Lola (Britton) were aware of Jadin’s sexuality. And like most movies, the mother is the most supportive while the father tolerates it but doesn’t really know how to deal with it.
And there’s where the stereotypes and cliched tropes begin. Jadin was a cheerleader, the only male cheerleader for the school. He’s also the victim of criticism and intimidation, not just from his student body, but from the town in a whole. It’s hard to believe that in 2012-2013 when much of the flashback scenes are set, there would be only one openly gay student or the school would’ve have a stricter policy in place.
It is easy to believe that Jadin would be the victim of violence and harassment. And the school would hesitant to do anything about it. And this is where the movie falters. It should’ve been Jadin’s story, instead of Joe’s. I didn’t really buy how Joe could be so tolerant of his son as long as he kept it private to suddenly going out and raising awareness. There’s even some notion that Joe might be viewing his cross-country trek as a personal atonement for not sticking up for his son better.
And Wahlberg doesn’t hold back. Even though Joe looks like he’s one of those type who prays before he even eats a Twinkie and enjoys his weekends drinking beer and watching sports, looks can be deceiving. But this movie never really does show the right story, especially considering that Joe never completed his cross-country walk. In October 2013, he was killed along U.S. Highway 40 when struck by a semi when the drive fell asleep.
This come shortly after his encounter with Sheriff Westin (Sinise) in Colorado. Westin initially approaches Joe thinking he’s a transient or a vagrant but after learning who he is, they talk about their respective sons over a warm meal. Westin has a son who’s also gay. While it seems like one of those coincidences that only happen in movies, Sinise and Wahlberg handle it with some honesty.
If more scenes like the one between Sinise and Wahlberg and Wahlberg with Miller were in the movie, it might have been a lot better. Instead, we get some story that feels like a made-for-TV movie from 20 years ago that was assembled too quickly and barely skims the surface. There’s also another scene between Wahlberg and Britton in which they talk about “tolerance” as he’s upset because one of Jadin’s bullies feels remorseful and leaves a letter on Jadin’s grave, which angers Joe. It’s scenes like these that would’ve made the movie better.
Could you really forgive someone who hurt your child physically and emotionally even if they are totally remorseful? You also got to look at the mob mentality of high school. Did a student who may have bullied or harassed Jadin do it just to “fit in”? The problem with Jadin’s suicide and the suicides and physical assaults and harassment of others in the LGBTQIA community is a system is in place all over America that is so willing to look the other way.
Joe is typical of a lot of Middle America fathers. He believes that since he’s the “Man of the House,” everything is his way or the highway. And he doesn’t really open his eyes until it affects him. This is often the case. And as Lola points out after Joe is approached for a picture while he’s stop at a motel, is it about him or about Jadin?
Like I said, this movie asks a lot of questions but refuses to answer them. Worse, in the end, it feels more like a vanity project for Wahlberg who had a few hell-raising and legal issues when he was younger.
What do you think? Please comment.