‘Joe Bell,’ Mark Wahlberg’s Socially Conscious Film About Bullying, Is a Swing and a Miss
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If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then surely that road is littered with movie theaters playing earnest, socially conscious, good-but-not-great titles that feel more like civics lessons and less like solid storytelling. Some of the marquees along that long road to hell might feature on their brightly lighted marquees Crash or The Pursuit of Happyness; Gandhi or Boy Erased. Joe Bell, who walked across the United States to bring awareness to the devastating impact of bullying, might even see his own name in lights.
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green from a script by Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry (Brokeback Mountain), the film Joe Bell, based on a true story, stars Mark Wahlberg as the titular character, a grieving father on a pilgrimage to raise awareness around bullying. Though the story was covered thoroughly as it was happening, the film begins in media res, with the working-class Bell pounding the pavement, his belongings in a rickety caddy he drags behind him while his son Jadin (Reid Miller, in a breakthrough performance) tags along for company.
The high-school aged Jadin is the reason Bell is walking. Having recently come out to his small-town family, he’s been targeted and harassed at school relentlessly. We discover about 30 minutes into the film that Jadin is a figment of Bell’s imagination; the boy committed suicide as a result of the endless bullying. It’s a strange framing device that doesn’t bring anything to the film — most folks who see the movie will have a working knowledge of the story (and those who don’t might just wonder why the sleight of hand with the facts).
The film then cuts back and forth between the forward motion of Bell’s pilgrimage — motivated by a real desire to impact change as well as to assuage his own guilt in his son’s death — and the circumstances leading up to Jadin’s suicide. Miller is a firebrand as the son; he has a heightened sensitivity (and a physical androgyny) that accentuates the micro- and macro-aggressions he encounters with his peers and his father; he’s hopeful and distraught equally, and when he’s in pain he’s not only sad, he’s wounded.
Wahlberg is stoic and righteous as Joe Bell; it’s an unfussy performance though a tad monochromatic. Bell’s slow realization of the level to which his own behavior added to Jadin’s plight conflicts with the message he’s spreading as he walks from the West to New York. It brings needed tension to the film, because even the confrontations with a few stock homophobes or his own embarrassment over Jadin’s interest in cheerleading are muted, downplayed. When Gary Sinise enters the film towards the end, as a police officer in Colorado who befriends Joe Bell and shares a similar story with the itinerant stranger, the economy and directness of his acting has an emotional lift — you understand his struggle with his son’s sexuality more fully in five minutes than we do with Joe and Jadin over the course of the film’s running time.
You wonder how different Joe Bell might have been with Sinise in the title role (or Jake Gyllenhaal, who executive produced, making this a real labor of love for the Brokeback Mountain brain trust).
Joe Bell, in real life, did not get to finish his walk. As too often happens, he was struck down by a motorist who’d fallen asleep at the wheel. Of course, that isn’t before he imparts some damned obvious nuggets of wisdom to Sinise’s Sheriff Westin and the entire audience or reconciles with his dead son in a golden field on their way to heaven.
That scene negates everything before it — tell your kids you love them, be there for them, support them without judgement, because it could all be gone in a second … unless you’re in a movie; then you can see them whenever you want in fantasyland.