2021, R, 93 min. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton, Gary Sinise, Morgan Lily, Maxwell Jenkins, Blaine Maye, Tara Buck.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 23, 2021
It’s telling that in the time since this topical slice of social justice-y, quasi-biopic film premiered as part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival’s virtual edition, the movie’s titular sobriquet was abbreviated from Good Joe Bell to the less righteous-sounding Joe Bell. That’s proper because the character is nobody’s idea of a saint. He’s just a hardworking, considerably macho, lower middle class Oregonian-cum-family man struggling to reconcile his role in some unnamed tragedy by trekking across the country on foot, alone. As played by a semi-subdued Wahlberg, Bell is stoically tortured throughout, not only by some irreconcilable past but by the often harsh elements he trudges through and the occasional overbearing 18-wheeler. Carrying nothing but a rucksack and pushing an overloaded cart full of camping equipment, he pauses here and there to speak his peace at various high schools and community venues along the way, accompanied only, for the most part, by his 15-year-old son Jadin (the ethereal Miller).
Based on actual events, and written by Diana Ossana and the late and much lamented Larry McMurtry (both of whom scripted 2005’s multi-Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain), the film – anti-bullying, pro-LGBTQIA – recounts the long and lonely walk of poor old Joe Bell, guilt-ridden because Jadin, a constant victim of some serious football jock bullying both physically and online, committed suicide. Certainly Joe Bell’s heart is in the right place. Joe and the shade of Jadin (ghost? angel? psychotic break?) bond over the course of Joe’s journey, hitting every Hollywood® father and son trope along the way. Tough guys don’t dance but Jadin gets his dad to get downright freaky footloose in a rainstorm as the pair perform a decidedly offbeat a cappella duet of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” There’s also a scene in a gay bar on drag night that’s only there to show Joe’s squirmy reaction to being surrounded by nonbinary people … or something like that.
Ultimately you’re left wondering who the film was truly about: the manly Joe, struck low by his own failure to understand his son, or Jadin. His flashbacked backstory is far more involving than his father’s self-flagellating trudge toward not only acceptance and embracement of “the other” but also the remorse stemming from his lackluster parenting of a gay child. Jadin’s mother Lola (Britton, on top of an underwritten role) is presented as being substantially more emotionally available to the plight of the boy. For all its hot button, au courant moral messaging, Joe Bell is preaching to the converted and unlikely to draw in the type of audience that actually needs to hear its pleas for kindness in a mean and wild world.