Despite featuring some really strong acting work from pretty much everyone involved, the latest film from Monsters and Men director Reinaldo Marcus Green (who also has King Richard coming out in November) feels mostly off, primarily because of the perspective it chooses to select as its vantage point. Joe Bell (previously Good Joe Bell) was written by the Brokeback Mountain scribes Diana Ossana and the recently departed Larry McMurtry, which is strange only because its star Mark Wahlberg notoriously turned down a leading role in the 2005 masterpiece for reasons that came across as more than a little homophobic. Jump ahead 15 years to Wahlberg starring as a likely homophobic Oregon father who is walking across the country to stand against bullying in honor of his son Jadin (the fantastic Reid Miller), who happens to be gay.
Does it mean the film is insincere or somewhat “less than” simply because it took Wahlberg a little too long to get with the program? Not necessarily, but the past that the actor has yet to fully deal with hangs heavy over this otherwise solid effort. The interactions between a loving but temper-prone father and the son he will never fully understand but always love are genuine. The added bonus of Connie Britton as wife/mother Lola and Maxwell Jenkins as the sweet but often overlooked brother Joseph only make the film’s emotional core stronger for their work.
The heart and soul of the film are the back and forths between father and son on the walk. I don’t want to give away a particular element of the film’s structure, but I feel the trailer gives it away anyway, so when the big reveal is finally made, it doesn’t quite land the way the filmmakers intended. One of the film’s biggest surprises is the presence of Gary Sinise as a local sheriff who befriends Joe on his route, the two striking up a conversation about their sons, both of whom are gay. I’ve forgotten what an absolutely stabilizing force Sinise can be in the right role, and he’s the epitome of someone who is struggling to make a connection with his son but is so full of compassion and love for the now-grown boy that it hurts that he feels like he’s losing him. And Joe’s advice to him is beautifully placed, especially from a man who seems to be struggling to get his message out into the world on his walk.
Based on a true story, Joe Bell doesn’t shy away from the moments when Joe and Jadin don’t connect, as well as the times when Joe is speaking in front of a group of kids who probably really need his anti-bullying message, and he simply doesn’t have the public speaking skills to make his point with any kind of conviction. But slowly and steadily, Joe becomes a celebrity on Facebook, and soon he’s getting booked to speak to larger groups, just as he’s finally getting the necessary conviction to speak with authority. The film isn’t attempting to make any big statements or make the rest of us warriors for change; this is just one guy’s self-reflective journey to seeing his own shortcomings. I’m sure many will wish there was more of Jadin’s story here, and there actually is quite a bit about not just Jadin being tormented at school but him connecting with his first crush. But for various reasons, Jadin’s representation is limited. I found myself pulled into the story, only to be met by this specter of Wahlberg’s past. I’m guessing for those who aren’t aware of the actor’s sketchy history, you might like Joe Bell quite a bit.
The film is now playing theatrically, in Chicago at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.
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