It’s hard to discuss Joe Bell without revealing a key early twist in Joe Bell, so let’s get the non-spoiler stuff out of the way first: Based on a true story, Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film is about a father (Mark Wahlberg) attempting to walk from his hometown of La Grande, Oregon, to New York City in order to spread an anti-bullying message after his teenage son Jadin (Reid Miller) was bullied at school for being gay. Wahlberg is at times quite affecting in the part of a man who doesn’t quite know how to do the right thing but knows he should do something. However, the film’s fairly relentless focus on Joe at times gives short shrift to Jadin’s own story.
That’s the brief review. The longer, spoiler-y version is more complicated. Those familiar with the real-life Joe Bell’s story will know that his son Jadin wasn’t simply bullied; he died by suicide at the age of 15 as a result of the homophobic abuse he received. In Joe Bell’s early scenes, however, we see Jadin walking alongside his father on his cross-country trek, remarking on the landscape around them, enjoying grilled wild asparagus, singing Lady Gaga songs, laughing at Joe’s preference of Dolly Parton over Cher. It’s only during a visit to a gay bar that Joe reveals — to a Dolly Parton impersonator, naturally — that his son is dead. The boy walking alongside him, in other words, is a phantom.
Much of what one thinks of Joe Bell will turn on what one thinks of this twist. Some will surely find it manipulative. It is, of course. But movies manipulate; that’s just part of what they do. And the simple idea of a father walking alongside an imaginary, still-alive version of his deceased son is agonizing. After his revelation in the bar, Joe comes back to an empty motel room — a room that was filled with Jadin’s lively presence two scenes earlier — and we feel the measure of his loss.
We might also notice that the boy walking alongside him is not Jadin but an idea of Jadin. More specifically, an idea of Jadin still held by his father. During a stop at a diner, Joe overhears a couple of bigots then hands them a brochure and promptly leaves without eating. Ghost Jadin excoriates him for not kicking these men’s asses. It’s an odd moment and doesn’t feel like something the kid would say. So, when we realize that this is not Jadin but Joe speaking to himself through Jadin, this man’s inner world begins to come into sharper focus.
The real journey in Joe Bell isn’t the one Joe is making across the country but rather the more introspective one he hasn’t taken yet. In flashbacks, we see that the pretty conservative, good ol’ boy Joe was unsure of how to handle his son — how to handle the boy’s joining the cheerleading squad or his refusal to engage in macho rituals, like watching football on TV. The father professes a kind of half-hearted support, but he’s clearly embarrassed by his child. When he says, “I love you” to Jadin, it sounds like a threat.
This same psychological block dominates Joe’s trek. He moves relentlessly forward, delivering speeches to high-school gyms and bingo halls in an aggressive, motormouth monotone. He’s in a rush because he’s not really walking across the U.S.; he’s running from himself. He hasn’t thought of the role his own don’t-ask-don’t-tell attitude might have played in helping end his son’s life. Wahlberg (who himself had some violent, bigoted incidents in his youth, which may or may not have influenced his decision to make this movie) excels at playing that kind of driven, unreflective character. He has a tougher time when Joe finally does make outward displays of emotion, but at least he’s trying, which is a welcome sight for those of us who’ve always liked him as an actor.
Joe Bell was written by Diana Ossana and the late, great Larry McMurtry, who also wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. That 2005 film is vastly superior to Joe Bell, but one can see an odd continuum between them. The angry, contemptuous sneer we see at the end of Brokeback on the face of Peter McRobbie, playing the father of the late Jack Twist (played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who is listed as an executive producer on Joe Bell) has never left me. Joe Bell attempts to portray a different kind of grieving father — similarly uncomprehending, at least initially, but far more compassionate and human. If the idea of making a movie in the year 2021 about a man struggling to accept his son’s homosexuality doesn’t exactly feel particularly fresh or relevant — well, that’s probably true, but we may also want to keep an eye on just how many countries around the world refuse to give Joe Bell a proper release.
Artistically, however, the movie faces the same spiritual challenge that Joe Bell the character does — it doesn’t really see Jadin. And unlike Joe, the film never quite achieves self-awareness. We do get glimpses of the son’s life in flashback, including a brief, clandestine romance with a boy on the football team. But we keep waiting for a full sense of Jadin as a person instead of a vision of him merely as a victim, a supporting player in his dad’s story of acceptance.
The problem with Joe Bell isn’t that it’s telling Joe’s story; that’s an important (and tragic) tale that should be told. The problem is that it fails to also tell Jadin’s story — even after it makes the point that Jadin’s journey is inextricable from Joe’s. That’s not simply an issue of representation but of dramatic weight. A fuller picture of Jadin would have expanded the film’s sense of tragedy and would also have made Joe’s transformation more visceral. As it stands, Joe Bell is an occasionally moving film that misses its chance at greatness.
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