DIRECTOR: Reinaldo Marcus Green

CAST: Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton, Maxwell Jenkins, Gary Sinise, Blaine Maye, Ash Santos, Igby Rigney, Morgan Lily, Scout Smith, Cassie Beck, Charles Halford, Tara Buck

RUNNING TIME: 94 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15

BASICALLY…: A father (Wahlberg) embarks on a cross-country walk in honour of his gay teenage son (Miller)…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

Casting aside his now-famous assault on Chris Rock at the Oscars, Will Smith honestly did deserve to win Best Actor for King Richard, for it was a career-best performance that was expertly guided by director Reinaldo Marcus Green. What wider audiences might not know, however, is that King Richard wasn’t Green’s only attempt from last year to dig its way into the hearts and minds of Academy voters with a powerful true-story narrative anchored by a magnetic lead turn. Joe Bell, despite its timely and moving subject matter as well as an equally emotional lead turn by star and producer Mark Wahlberg, ended up being buried by its US distributors last summer, almost a year on from its middling reception at film festivals, with significantly more focus being placed upon Green’s other, much more Oscar-winning 2021 biopic.

Honestly, it’s easy to see why it was buried. The film itself is a mixed bag, filled with near-equal amounts of things that do and don’t work, and an awkward fumbling of its vital messages which really should have been given much more of a presence than it has. However, it’s hard to deny that everyone went into this with the best of intentions, and that passion does show in parts of the filmmaking and especially the acting.

Wahlberg plays the titular Joe Bell, who we first meet in the midst of his famed walk across the country from Oregon towards New York to spread awareness of bullying and intolerance, on behalf of his teenage son Jadin (Reid Miller) who was frequently harassed at school for being gay. Flashbacks reveal that Joe’s initial reaction to his son coming out was perhaps not the best way he could have handled it, and in the present he blames himself for not doing enough for his son after things take an impossibly tragic turn. Joe’s cross-country walk, which he undertakes alone with only Jadin there for company, is thus not only an attempt to spread word about the negative effects of hate, but also an exercise to slowly forgive himself for his role in his son’s ultimate breakdown.

The faults with this movie mostly, and unfortunately, lie in its screenplay. I say “unfortunately” because Joe Bell happens to be the final script by writing duo Diana Ossana and Larry McMurty (whose greatest success together was writing the Oscar-winning screenplay for Brokeback Mountain) after the latter passed away last year, so to knock parts of this script feels a bit morbid on my part. Nonetheless, their script sadly suffers from a straight-faced use of familiar conventions that make the drama a bit more cloying than it ought to be, and a weak focus on the actual messages that the real Joe Bell worked so hard to spread across the country. From the description in the previous paragraph, you can probably already identify one particular convention that the movie runs with from the opening scene onwards, regarding the presence of certain characters who interact exclusively with the main character and, apparently, nobody else. It’s more obvious when you know the full tragic story before watching this dramatized re-enactment, which plays this overdone convention with such a straight face that you’re just waiting and waiting for that big reveal to finally come instead of actually getting sucked in to the drama that has been created around it. Certain other conventions, particularly ones that come into play towards the film’s close, also carry an unfortunate cringe factor, with dialogue and shot choices that can be, to say the least, rather eye-rolling in their execution.

There are also issues concerning how Joe Bell doesn’t exactly have the strongest focus on what really matters in this particular story, namely the messages that the titular character worked hard to spread. We only ever see Joe Bell give no more than a few public lectures about bullying, and there is never a point where the viewer actually gets to hear what he has to say: he awkwardly mumbles through the first instance, is muted when we next see him, one is part of a wider montage, and the last one – arguably the point where we should finally here at least some of his most formulated words – cuts to the next scene right as he’s about to begin. It’s one thing to focus on this character’s long physical journey from one state to the next, as well as flashbacks to how he got to this point, but with almost no focus on the actual messages he is setting out to spread, it only undermines the real Joe Bell’s efforts by making it all seem so superficial and even empty.

However, while Joe Bell may not be working from the most sophisticated script, the day is (almost) saved by some solid direction by Reinaldo Marcus Green, and some undeniably effective central performances. With an approach that’s closer to his feature debut Monsters and Men than his more accessible King Richard, Green’s fly-on-the-wall capturing of Mark Wahlberg’s Joe Bell interacting with Reid Miller’s Jadin, whether they’re playfully conversing with Lady Gaga lyrics or having an emotionally intense argument, is keenly observed, and allows the director to get as deep as he can into their complicated relationship, as well as making some seriously disturbing instances of bullying all the more effective. Both Wahlberg and Miller are great in this movie, with the latter delivering one of his strongest lead turns in years as he pours all his energy and charisma into an emotionally raw portrayal. Some equally powerful supporting turns by Connie Britton (as Joe’s wife and Jadin’s mother) and Gary Sinise, who shows up later in the movie as a hospitable sheriff, bring strong depth to a script that otherwise doesn’t have much of it, which makes the film so much easier to watch than it could have been, had it ended up in the wrong hands.

Overall, it’s fair as to why Joe Bell ended up being buried, because it just doesn’t handle the right messages in a right enough fashion, but it shouldn’t be ignored entirely because there are parts of it that do land just about where it should. Had there been a lot more focus put into this script – and again, I do tread lightly when talking about it, given that one of the writers is no longer with us – Joe Bell could have been just as worthy of consideration as Green’s next movie ended up being.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Joe Bell is an uneven, but undeniably well-intentioned, drama that fumbles its depiction of the title character’s anti-bullying messages with a noticeable lack of focus, but strong direction by Reinaldo Marcus Green and emotional lead performances by Mark Wahlberg and Reid Miller do make it more watchable than it could have been.

Joe Bell is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

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