Mark Wahlberg gives a strong performance in a weak film.
Joe Bell (Mark Wahlberg), in a film based on the real-life titular character, tries get a handle on the fact that his son, Jadin (Reid Miller), is gay. While the small-town bullies Jadin, Joe can’t think of a way to counter the negativity other than trekking cross-country from Oregon to NYC to protest. Director Reinoldo Marcus Green and Oscar-winning writers Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana succeed in keeping Wahlberg in his working-class boundaries for one of his strongest roles ever.
That achievement doesn’t help much for a mediocre drama replete with cliches and a road trip where nothing much happens. Joe has little time for reflection to himself or the media that follows him. The real action is with his wife, Lola (Connie Britton), who understandably tries to make sense of Joe’s eccentric behavior and direct him in more productive ways.
Joe’s wrestling son, Joseph (Maxwell Jenkins), provides a more normal child experience, but Joe is so obsessed with his rebellious foot journey that this relationship goes nowhere. Or maybe it does because the crosscutting with time and child confuses enough to induce sleep.
Until, in the last segment, Sheriff Westin (Gary Sinise) meets Joe—the two converse about their mutual blundering with their children, recognizing that their egoism, manifest in the film by Joe’s dogged determination to walk to NYC, is part of the problem. In other words, the resolution for Joe would have been a concentration on Jadin as bullied, gay child and less concern for Joe, an adult searching for meaning. “It’s all not about me” is a mantra he could have used.
When Joe hands out a card to hecklers and leaves rather than confronting their issues, Jadin accurately tells him he’s not confronting the issue but rather “burying it.” Busted! Joe for missing the point.
“Joe Bell” is not a bad film; it just squanders two important cultural subjects—bullying and gender—to give Wahlberg a venue for a notable performance.
John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts and produces WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics. Contact him at JohnDeSando62@gmail.com