Based on a real story, Joe Bell shows a father’s effort to work towards equality and to end the bullying that has affected his son. The film starts out with Joe (Mark Wahlberg) on the road from La Grande, Oregon, walking to New York. Along the way he stops to lecture against the persecution of the LGBTI community in rural America, but he finds himself often in conflict with his son, Jaden (Reid Miller), as to how effective and genuine his commitment to the cause is. We see the motivation for this as we flashback to when Jaden comes out as gay. Joe tacitly accepts his son’s announcement, but privately struggles with his own prejudices, and doesn’t initially help address the serious bullying that his son constantly faces in the small town.
It would be so easy to lionise Joe as a character, but Joe Bell makes the correct decision to take a more “warts and all” approach to the true life individual. It’s a smart play. Firstly this gives Wahlberg a meatier role with dramatic depth. Joe’s…well… an “Average Joe”, but certainly one that is flawed, struggling with outdated attitudes (albeit far too common in recent years) and unable to fully accept his son’s sexuality. Wahlberg does a solid job battling with this, and the interplay between him and Miller when they’re on the road together, and Jaden is free to be frank with his father, really is the highlight of this film.
The second reason this is a smart decision is that it showcases the toxic masculinity and the narrow-minded attitudes that have led to Jaden’s bullying. It feels like a more uncomfortable and brutally honest discussion of what it means to be genuinely supportive and backing up that support with action. Joe Bell is a film that wishes to promote such a discussion, and it seems right to have a character that is struggling with his own silent complicity in that persecution.
The downside is that Joe Bell is a little heavy handed in its approach, and has a faint whiff of Oscar baiting to it. It’s a hard judgement call to make, but you’ll know it when that score rings out just a little too loud during a dramatic moment, or the camera lingers just a bit too long on Wahlberg’s pained exasperation.
Ultimately the story, the acting (especially Miller’s empathetic turn), and the message pull Joe Bell through, making something that is certainly worth watching.