SYNOPSIS: From filmmaker Reinaldo Marcus Green (MONSTERS AND MEN; upcoming KING RICHARD), along with the Academy Award-winning writing team behind BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (Diana Ossana & Larry McMurtry) and Academy Award nominee Mark Wahlberg, JOE BELL tells the intimate and emotional true story of an Oregonian father who pays tribute to his gay teenage son Jadin, embarking on a self-reflective walk across America to speak his heart to heartland citizens about the real and terrifying costs of bullying.
Mark Wahlberg has a successful film career playing tough as nail characters and has dabbled anything from drama to action to comedies. Still, the Academy Award nominee and Boston native has received a lot of flak for his acting. To be specific, he seems to be playing all sorts of different characters the same way.
The same kind of vibe applies to Joe Bell as well. Wahlberg plays a tough, working-class Oregon man name Joe Bell who lost his gay son, Jadin (Reid Miller) to suicide. Shaken by the fact that his son died as a result of intense bullying at school due to his sexuality, Bell embarks on a road journey across the country delivering speeches on tolerance, differences and bullying.
Based on a true story and with very noble intentions, Joe Bell perhaps works better in a documentary format rather than a feature length movie. Despite a lean runtime, the screenplay fails to unravel the true meaning behind this film. Most of the happenings are told in flashbacks and Joe is shown constantly talking to his son (whom we obviously know is not there physically), singing Lady Gaga’s hit tune, “Born This Way” together and dancing with “him” in the rain. Is Joe’s perspective of things reliable? Or is he trying hard to redeem himself through his imaginative conversations with his late son?
Despite the fact that Joe is on his road trip talking about the consequences of bullying, we never see or hear much of his speech or even actions. He walks off after encountering two homophobic at a diner then we see him going to a gay bar to chit chat later on. He displays his anger at his wife and younger son when they come to visit. Joe’s actions certainly raises a lot of questions and Wahlberg’s hamfisted performance doesn’t add much credibility to it because most of the time, he looks like he is far more ready to kill than gives a rousing speech to the masses.
Reid Miller on the other hand gave a heartbreaking portrayal of Jadin especially a noteworthy breaking down scene after his tragic assault in the locker room. The always welcome Gary Sinise turns up late in the movie as Sheriff Westin who lends a listening ear to Joe. Connie Britton and Maxwell Jenkins who plays Joe’s supportive wife and younger son respectively shines in their limited screentime.
Written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, the duo responsible for the Oscar winning Brokeback Mountain, Joe Bell unfortunately is more of a miss for both of them. There’s too much predictability and the messages never come across as powerful as it should be. Making it worse is the non-linear style of storytelling which is more stylish than engaging. In short, it’s a wasted opportunity for the subject matter.
Review by Linus Tee