Review: ‘Joe Bell,’ starring Mark Wahlberg

August 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

Reid Miller and Mark Wahlberg in “Joe Bell” (Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert/Roadside Attractions)

“Joe Bell”

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

Culture Representation: Taking place in various U.S. cities in 2013, the dramatic film “Joe Bell” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After his teenage son comes out as gay, a man goes on a cross-country mission to educate people about tolerance and to lecture against bullying, but he encounters some obstacles and emotional difficulties along the way.

Culture Audience: “Joe Bell” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in real-life stories that are told in a very hokey movie version.

Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller and Connie Britton in “Joe Bell” (Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert/Roadside Attractions)

Emotionally manipulative and relentlessly cloying, “Joe Bell” has a few pivotal scenes in a corn field, which is symbolic of how densely corny this movie is. “Joe Bell” is based on a true story, but the movie throws in an unnecessary supernatural/psychological twist element that smacks of desperation to make this dramatic film look like some kind of M. Night Shyamalan shocker movie with a “surprise” reveal. “Joe Bell” is a sad example of how a movie with an important message can be sullied by filmmakers who think they have to resort to gimmicks to tell the story.

Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry wrote the abysmal screenplay for “Joe Bell.” And it’s the first movie they’ve written together since they won an adapted screenplay Oscar for 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain.” Unfortunately, “Joe Bell” is nowhere near being an Oscar-caliber film. The movie is so dreadful, it’s more like a low-rent, direct-to-video release that looks like something the filmmakers kind of want to forget they made because the movie turned out worse than they expected.

It didn’t have to be this way. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, “Joe Bell” has a very talented cast of people who are capable of doing better work. All of the “Joe Bell” actors are perfectly adequate in their roles. However, even the actors can’t save this ill-conceived mess that turns what should have been a unique inspirational story into a tedious “cranky dad on a road trip” movie—but with a twist that’s tasteless and insensitive to the real people who are portrayed in this movie.

Mark Wahlberg portrays the titular, hot-tempered character Joe Bell, who is ostensibly on a road trip for his gay teenage son and to teach people about acceptance of the LGBTQ community and other people who are often the targets of hate. But somehow—based on how the movie depicts what happened in real life—Joe Bell makes the trip all about Joe Bell. During this road trip, which takes place in 2013, Joe plans to walk across the United States within two years, with the goal to talk to as many people as possible about tolerance and the dangers of bullying.

Because Joe refuses to use any transportation vehicles for this trip, he carries his possessions in a backpack and a push cart. Joe is accompanied by his 15-year-old gay son Jadin Bell (played by Reid Miller), who is a vibrant and likable kid. Jadin is the inspiration for this road trip because of his experiences of being bullied at school. There are several flashbacks showing what happened before this trip.

In these flashbacks, viewers see that Joe and his loyal/long-suffering wife Lola Bell (played by Connie Britton) have a working-class life in La Grande, Oregon. (The movie never shows what they do for a living, but in real life, Joe worked at a plywood mill before he quit to go on the road trip.) Joe and Lola have another son named Joseph Bell (played by Maxwell Jenkins), who’s about 11 or 12 years old when this story takes place. Joseph is Joe’s favored child because, unlike Jadin, Joseph likes to play sports and is not as “effeminate” as Jadin.

Lola already knows that Jadin is gay and is being bullied at school. However, she’s fairly passive and waits to do something only after Jadin musters up the courage to tell Joe. Joe’s brusque reaction to Jadin coming out is to say that he still loves and accepts Jadin but that Jadin doesn’t need to “advertise” to anyone outside of the family that Jadin is gay. As for the bullying, Joe tells Jadin that he needs to fight back with violence, which is advice that Jadin refuses to take.

Jadin later overhears Joe talking to Joe’s friend Jimmy Crowder (played by David H. Stevens) about Jadin being gay. Jimmy comments to Joe about Jadin’s sexuality by saying that Jadin will probably “grow out of it,” because Jimmy says that some teenagers think it’s trendy to try to be gay. Jadin looks hurt and mortified when he sees that his father seems to agree.

Jadin is the only male cheerleader on his school’s cheerleading squad, which also includes Jadin’s best friend Marcie (played by Morgan Lily), who knows that Jadin is gay and loves and accepts Jadin for who he is. One day, after Jadin came out as gay, Marcie and Jadin are practicing some cheerleading routines on the Bell family’s front lawn. Joe angrily orders Jadin to go in the backyard to practice.

Joe says it’s because he doesn’t want the neighbors to think that Jadin is showing off, but Jadin and Marcie really know it’s because Joe doesn’t want the neighbors to see Jadin being “effeminate.” It’s a humiliating moment for Jadin, who resists Joe’s orders at first, but then is resigned to do what Joe tells him because he doesn’t want Joe to yell at him anymore. Viewers of this movie will see plenty of Joe’s temper tantrums.

The flashbacks also include the school bullying that Jadin experienced and what has almost become a movie cliché about a bullied gay teenage boy in high school: Jadin has a secret crush on someone who is part of the same homophobic clique of male students who are doing the bullying. The group is led by a stereotypical alpha-male jock named Boyd (played by Blaine Maye), who picks on Jadin any chance that he gets. Jadin has a crush on the more laid-back Chance (played by Igby Rigney), who exchanges furtive glances of attraction with Jadin in the school cafeteria.

Chance and Jadin end up at the same costume party at someone’s house. (Jadin is dressed as the Brian Slade glam rock character from the 1998 film “Velvet Goldmine.”) Jadin and Chance eye each other some more at the party. And it should come as no surprise what happens next when Chance asks Jadin if he wants to go somewhere private to have a smoke. Jadin and Chance kiss each other for the first time, but that’s as far as it goes.

But do you think closeted Chance, who hangs out with and enables homophobic bullies, would suddenly go public and admit that he’s sexually attracted to Jadin? Of course not. It leads to an entirely predictable scenario where Jadin gets a vicious beating on the school’s campus, while Chance betrays Jadin and does nothing to stop it.

This assault is the last straw for Jadin and his parents, who have a meeting with the school principal to see what can be done to discipline these attackers. The meeting goes as badly as you think it would, considering that the bullies are star athletes at the school. It makes Jadin and his family feel like they can’t count on the school to protect him,

But Jadin is about to find out that his parents are part of the problem too. One evening, during a school football game that Joe and Lola are attending, some homophobic students in the stands start throwing things at Jadin and taunt him while he’s on the field with the other cheerleaders. Joe and Lola watch in horror, but do nothing. Instead, Joe and Lola look embarrassed and quickly leave the football game. Jadin helplessly sees what is essentially Lola and Joe acting ashamed that Jadin is their child. It’s a heartbreaking moment.

All of this is necessary background information to explain why Joe is trying to make amends on this cross-country road trip. Much of it is because of he feels guilty about not being as supportive of Jadin as he should have been in the past. If you don’t know what happened in real life, you might still notice that something is “off-kilter” about this road trip. Observant viewers will easily figure it out when they see the interactions that Jadin and Joe have when they’re in places with other people.

The “reveal” comes about halfway through the movie. And it’s meant to pack an emotional wallop, but it just comes across as tacky and manipulative. The rest of the movie is a mishmash of Joe going to various places to give trite lectures about tolerance. In one scene, he ends up talking to people at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

In another scene, Joe goes outside his comfort zone and visits a gay bar, where he meets with a gay man who wants to talk to Joe about Joe’s anti-bullying mission. At the bar, Joe ends up making the acquaintance of a drag queen (played by Jason Cozmo) who’s dressed like Dolly Parton. The drag queen flirts with Joe and takes a photo with him. The movie tries to make it a comedic moment because before going to the bar, Joe told Jadin that if he saw any drag queens there, he hoped one them would be as dressed at Dolly Parton, so he could at least look at some big breasts.

It’s as if Joe and this movie want to give unnecessary reminders that he’s straight. Based on how this movie depicts him, Joe is the type of macho guy who would want to wear a T-shirt that says, “Red-Blooded American Heterosexual Man—And Don’t You Forget It!” Therefore, the movie wants to make him look more noble for this road trip, just because he’s a straight guy who’s making personal sacrificies doing advocacy work for the LGBTQ community. There’s a very self-congratulatory way that Joe is presented in this movie that’s very off-putting.

There are multiple scenes where Joe has to decide how to confront very homophobic people, even though he knows he probably won’t change their minds with a 30-second scolding. And there’s a poorly written scene in the beginning of the movie, when Joe is giving a lecture at a high school in Twin Falls, Idaho. His entire speech is extremely generic and literally less than two minutes.

One of the reasons why this movie is so ineffective is that Joe spends more time complaining about how hard it is for him on this road trip instead of having a real impact on the bigoted people whose minds need to be changed the most. For the most part, the movie shows that he’s “preaching to the choir.” On the rare occasion that Joe confronts hardcore bigots, the most he does is give them his business card and/or utter something quickly that they either scoff at or ignore.

At one point, Lola and Joseph join him for a visit during this road trip. And it’s where the movie gets little bit off of its high horse to show the harsh realities of how this messianic road trip has taken a toll on Lola and Joe’s marriage. She’s very unhappy that he has almost drained their bank accounts to finance this trip.

Joe’s cross-country trip has gotten national media attention, so he gets some donations from the public. However, it’s still a trip funded mainly by Joe and Lola’s savings—and fueled by Joe’s self-righteous ego. One of the things that annoys Lola is how Joe seems to love the attention of being somewhat of a celebrity for going on this trip. Strangers come up to Joe to praise him and ask to take photos with him.

It doesn’t mean that Joe doesn’t experience self-doubt or despair. Joe has a brief moment in the movie where he thinks about quitting and going back home. But you know he won’t really quit, because it seems like Joe’s intentions aren’t just about showing support for Jadin.

It’s also about feeling guilty and trying to avoid going back to his hometown, where he would have to face some very difficult truths. The movie becomes less about Jadin’s painful experiences and more about what kind of comfort level Joe is feeling at any particular moment. Therefore, it all comes back to Joe and his ego.

Gary Sinise has a small supporting role as Sheriff Westin, a cop in Colorado who meets Joe when Joe is at a very low point on the trip because Joe is running out of money. The Sheriff Westin character seems to have been created for this movie to have yet another stranger be a sounding board for Joe’s self-pity. When the sheriff makes a discovery toward the end of the film, his reaction is so ridiculous and unrealistic, it would make any cop cringe.

“Joe Bell” was originally titled “Good Joe Bell.” It’s easy to see why the title was changed, because the character of Joe Bell in the movie—just like the movie itself—is very hard to like. And there isn’t anything “good” about a movie that shoves aside the meaning of this real-life inspirational journey, just so it can be a showcase for a guy who’s on an ego trip to make himself feel better.

Roadside Attractions released “Joe Bell” in U.S. cinemas on July 23, 2021.