A film about gay tragedy, but not necessarily for gay audiences, the somber drama Joe Bell (★★☆☆☆) might not be for audiences who love gays, either. A well-meaning attempt to reach folks who can tolerate a gays-love-Cher joke, but don’t want their sons to turn out that way, Joe Bell echoes the important message about bullying that its real-life subject spent months spreading across America, trekking on foot from coast to coast.
Joe, a small-town Oregon dad, portrayed by Mark Wahlberg as a walking grimace in a ball cap, is a bully himself, especially to wife Lola (Connie Britton) and sons Jadin (Reid Miller) and Joseph (Maxwell Jenkins). More interested in beer and football than his boys’ feelings, he barely has the patience to listen to Jadin when the nervous teen comes out to him one afternoon.
Yet, it’s on Jadin’s behalf that, months later, Joe is backpacking from town to town, pushing his cart of snacks and supplies, on a mission to teach a lesson of tolerance to anyone who will listen. The greater lesson learned, and the film’s main concern, is Joe Bell accepting the role his own intolerance played in shaping Jadin’s heartbreaking fate. As depicted in flashbacks intercut with Joe’s cross-country journey, Jadin is bullied, harassed, and assaulted at school by a crew of cruel jocks. Joe talks to Lola about being afraid for their son, but when given a chance, doesn’t stand up for him.
The movie offers Joe several chances to do better for Jadin, and he hardly ever steps right. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) and co-screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry (the Oscar-winning scripters of Brokeback Mountain) condense Joe and Jadin’s father-son conflict into a persistent uphill climb that escalates alongside the brutal harassment Jadin suffers at school.
Despite the rare moments in which Joe displays tenderness or affection, the script leaves Wahlberg not much gray area to roam around with this character. Joe Bell is pretty much always a bully towards his wife and kids, until he finally tries to make things right by walking the walk of tolerance.
Even then, he’s still a bully, just one who preaches kindness and respect. In that regard, the movie feels honest. His righteous mission doesn’t turn Joe Bell into a “nice guy,” or a better husband, overnight. Britton, who spends most of the domestic scenes silently signaling Lola’s support for Jadin, or her consternation with Joe, finally gets to fire up her engines when Lola calls out Joe for making their tragic story all about him. Nothing in the script, or in the performance, explains where or why Lola had been hiding that strength and perceptiveness, or why she never hauled that backbone and her boys far away from Joe. We’re not given much insight into why she does anything.
She’s right, though — the movie, just like Joe, is wrapped up in his grief and dismissive of hers. Similarly, Jadin’s struggles only matter as they pertain to Joe’s woes, although Miller’s bright-eyed performance draws us into the boy’s warmth and vulnerability. He also conveys Jadin’s dawning confidence in his fleeting moments of joy, from locking eyes with an interested classmate to practicing his cheerleading on the front lawn. But Jadin’s joys are presented merely as sources of distress for Joe, or for dads like Joe.
Gary Sinise shows up briefly playing exactly that sort of dad, a stern Colorado sheriff who conveniently acknowledges that listening to Joe’s spiel leads him to reconsider some of his close-minded thinking about gays. Good for him, good for Joe, and if you know someone likewise in need of a basic lesson in not bullying a kid to death — and, sadly, we might all know someone — point them in the direction of Joe Bell.
Joe Bell opens Friday, July 23 in theaters everywhere. Visit www.joebellthemovie.com.
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