‘Joe Bell’ Review
Given his track record, Mark Wahlberg is not the guy that first comes to mind for Joe Bell, a message movie about tolerance and inclusion. On the other hand, he’s perfectly cast as a macho Oregon dad struggling with his own prejudices when his son comes out as gay. Director Marcus Green (Monsters and Men, 2018) is working with a script co-written by Diana Ossana and the late, great Larry McMurtry, and though the film touches on some topics of conflict, it does so in a manner that plays comfortably for mass audiences. Mr. McMurtry passed away earlier this year, and the two co-writers shared an Oscar for their Brokeback Mountain screenplay.
Wahlberg plays Joe Bell; the film is based on the true story of Bell’s decision to walk across America – from Oregon to New York City in honor of his son Jadin (played well by Reid Miller). Oregon was home, but the Big Apple was where Jadin dreamed of living – a place more accepting of him. We witness some of the relentless bullying and abuse Jadin endured at school and the principal’s appalling reaction, and we also see his home life: a dad who tries to avoid the issue and a loving mother (Connie Britton) who is not a woman of action.
While on his tribute walk, Joe stops at schools and community centers to tell the story of Jadin and express the importance of kindness and tolerance. Of course, this is also a time for some personal emotional cleansing for Joe…an act of atonement, if you will. There is a twisty plot device that is evidently supposed to be a surprise, but there was no need to make it such – it would have still worked just fine. One of the best sequences occurs when Joe crosses paths with a small-town Sheriff played by Gary Sinise. It’s a cathartic few minutes that allows a fine actor (Sinise) to play the role of a father unloading the burden of guilt.
The past few years have inspired many of us to face our personal prejudices and perspectives, and this message movie reminds us that homophobia still exists and often overpowers the kindness of others. Jadin’s essay describing being “surrounded by people that hate you” probably hits home for far too many.