‘Joe Bell’: The messages ring, but the narrative structure does not

“Joe Bell” (2021) – “I’ve decided to walk across America.” – Joe Bell (Mark Wahlberg)

In director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “Joe Bell”, Joe – a working-class family man – drops his responsibilities at home and embarks on a trek from La Grande, Ore. to New York City.  Jadin (Reid Miller), his eldest son, joins his dad, and this two-person reverse Lewis & Clark journey feels entirely apropos.  Joe delivers an anti-bullying message to anyone who will listen, in response to Jadin receiving repeated torments because of his sexual orientation, both at school and online.

Lest anyone think that the United States is in a post-homophobic world in 2021.  Sure, the country has come a long way, but the Obergefell v. Hodges U.S. Supreme Court decision – that legalized same-sex marriage – didn’t arrive until 2015, and this film – based on a true story – is set two years prior.

Green’s 90-minute movie includes a triad of themes:  Joe’s relationship with his son, Jadin’s clashes with certain classmates, and the Bells’ journey.  These are straightforward ideas – and real-life events – that Green and his team can easily translate into a feature film, but “Joe Bell” takes an altogether different narrative approach. 

Jadin (Reid Miller) and Joe (Mark Wahlberg) Bell

This movie – based on Diane Ossana and Larry McMurtry’s screenplay – goes arthouse all the way and communicates its views through highlights and bursts of the three aforementioned topics.  Additionally, Green endorses a non-linear timeline, and the result is a messy concoction of both family and societal strife.  Yes, the film successfully communicates the Bells’ story by provoking raw feelings, but the purposely choppy presentation brings unnecessary chaos and misdirection to a movie that doesn’t need them.

Even though Jadin’s struggle is the film’s emotional heartbeat, the movie takes an in-depth look at Joe’s arc, hence the title.  Joe, who would feel perfectly comfortable living like Jeremiah Johnson 24/7, generally accepts that his son is gay, but not entirely.  He sometimes says the right things to Jadin, like “I love you”, but Joe doesn’t completely acknowledge his son’s reality.  Ossana and McMurtry’s script effectively navigates a delicate balancing act, where they don’t paint Joe’s internal churn in broad black or white strokes.  They don’t portray Joe as a cartoon character of straight-up rejection or frustration.  On the other hand, he’s not wholeheartedly altruistic in his support either, but his viewpoint changes after the harassment at school reaches a breaking point, and his cross-country quest is born. 

We see Mr. Bell push a baby carriage with tent equipment and other essentials, and he makes stops to speak on his anti-bullying stance, but Green limits the big-crowd pomp and circumstance and spends more time – it seems – with Joe sitting in the dirt or leaning against a wooden fence and pondering the past.  Joe claims that his motivation is for Jadin, but he seems to endorse his penance.  His experiences are muddy and grueling as he travels uphill both ways.  Rather than celebrate his efforts with masses of supporters, the movie shares his troubled thoughts through occasional one-on-one conversations.  Unfortunately, these random meetups aren’t terribly memorable, save one completely absorbing chat with a sheriff (Gary Sinise) that makes you wish that Sinise would star in everything.

Joe (Wahlberg) and Sheriff Westin (Gary Sinise)

The cinematic stars don’t align on this road trip, and the film doesn’t help itself with frequent flashbacks – of Jadin’s school experiences – that interrupt the pace and flow of Joe’s selfless deeds that also double as hopeful redemption.  These disruptions are a double whammy because they don’t offer a comprehensive view of Jadin’s world.  Instead, we see isolated scenes of a potential romance, taunts in the boys’ locker room, a game day cheerleading attempt, and a few other glimpses.

Still, Miller and Wahlberg give convincing performances, and they offer a couple of moments that will linger long after the credits roll.  Jadin and Joe’s story is a consequential one, and the film’s messages ring, but the narrative structure does not. 

⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed by: Reinaldo Marcus Green

Written by: Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton, and Gary Sinise

Runtime: 90 minutes

Rated: R

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