Joe Bell REVIEW – Well-Intentioned But Ultimately Hollow

A film with the best of intentions that just misses the mark.

Joe Bell
Joe Bell

Joe Bell’s subject matter and its themes should have allowed the film to be an important one. It explores the bullying of Jadin Bell (Reid Miller), a taunting and hatred born out of homophobia and the fear of the other, and the ensuing tragic consequences. The problem is, Jadin is barely in the film, and the narrative is so chopped up that any emotional investment just goes out the window.

Rather, the focus is on Joe Bell (Mark Wahlberg), Jadin’s father, who goes on a walk of hope for his son, and the film is more keen in crafting a redemptive arc for him. It is a bit perplexing that the screenwriting duo of Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, who won the Oscar for Best Screenplay for Brokeback Mountain, would churn out a screenplay this lackluster.

The film moves between the past and the present, and we are privy to Jadin’s difficulties in coming out to his father, as well as Joe’s inability to accept his son’s difference. As the film wears on, it becomes blatantly apparent that the material seems quite beyond our leading man’s capabilities. Wahlberg tries, but a lot of the time he seems bewildered that he’s even in this movie. His portrayal of Joe ranges from quick anger to a stunned confusion, and because the film rests on his ability to emote, it ends up feeling very empty since he’s just unable to. Joe Bell’s intentions are also ambiguous – is he walking to affect change, or as a means to assuage his guilty conscience?

He encourages the people he speaks to that the means to beat this starts at home, and that as parents they just need to love and accept their children. But Joe was clearly unable to, so it feels hypocritical and not genuine. To truly spread the message doesn’t come from posturing, rather, it is through accepting his own failures, and urging others to do better because he didn’t. We do see Joe interacting with members of the LGBTQ community, and he seems more comfortable here than he was with his son, which does seem to reflect growth, yet Joe finds himself holding back when the opportunity to educate presents itself.

In contrast, Miller delivers a stunning performance as Jadin, and manages to grip the viewer emotionally despite only showing up in the film sporadically. Connie Britton’s Lola Bell is fairly one-note, mostly that of overwrought mother and wife. We can understand why, but there isn’t more besides Joe’s brief mention of her drinking problem, which isn’t dealt with beyond that moment.

The decision to frame the film the way they did in order to add a twist feels gimmicky and contrived. This choice, and the abrupt shift to the reality of things mid-way, dilutes the impact of the narrative. To start on such a hopeful spirit before switching gears to bleak outcomes felt like a cheap way to induce waterworks, as opposed to being the emotional pay-off they were counting on.

There are occasional moving moments, mostly facilitated by Miller, but these moments aren’t enough to steer the film towards a sense of competency. Ultimately, Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film is too poorly executed to mean something, despite its best intentions.

Review screener provided.

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Joe Bell
Leading man Mark Wahlberg can't quite muster up an authentic performance for Joe Bell, and the film suffers as a result.