Joe Bell, a blue-collar man, hikes across America to lecture on the dangers of bullying. His gay son, Jadin, tags along and asks him to look at his own prejudice. Joe Bell touches on issues of mental health and systemic homophobia. But these take a back seat to Joe’s tired crisis of masculinity. The writers wisely refuse to squeeze the true story into an inspirational narrative. Joe is not on a path to redemption, despite what the posters say. This review contains spoilers and merits a trigger warning.
Mark Wahlberg plays Joe as a deluded, often cruel, man. His wife (underused Connie Britton) retreats from his temper. His youngest son Joseph (sensitive Maxwell Jenkins) tries desperately to please him. Only Reid Miller’s Jadin has the strength to resist his dominance. He dates a closeted peer and joins the cheer-leading squad despite warnings to keep his head down. Miller gives a compelling performance as a boy who can only be himself. He is not the protagonist, sadly, but he is the film’s breakout star.
The screenplay hides key information till the midpoint. Jadin Bell took his own life at the age of 15. He had suffered months of harassment and violence at his school with no support from his father. Joe’s using the trip to avoid processing his grief. The Jadin we’ve seen represents his guilty conscience. This controversial twist forces Miller to provide the emotional labor that Wahlberg is incapable of. Many will find the gimmick in poor taste.
A nuanced actor might have played Joe as a man who changes on his journey. Wahlberg’s gruff, oblivious turn suggests the hero of a Greek tragedy. A man who doesn’t acknowledge his hubris until it’s too late. When Gary Sinise arrives, as another father of a gay son, Joe tells him all he’s learned on the road. But we see in Sinise the empathy that Joe still lacks. Their conversation solidified the film’s purpose for me. Joe Bell is not aimed at LGBT youth. It targets heterosexual men who could learn from Joe’s mistakes.
Reviews for Joe Bell have skewed negative. But the film is not a disaster. Simply clumsy and well meaning. It reminds me of works like Prayers for Bobby, The Matthew Shepard Story and The Laramie Project. These tales are bleak and often stumble. But they preserve the memories of their subjects for future generations. I hope that Joe Bell does the same.