Wahlberg is the good man of the title, Joe Bell, husband to Lola (Connie Britton), father to sons Joseph (Maxwell Jenkins) and Jadin (Reid Miller), a young gay man who took his own life after repeated bullying from the jocks at his high school. Unable to resolve his feelings, Joe hits the road, vowing to walk from La Grande, Oregon to New York City, the city of Jadin’s dreams. It’s a time of solitude for Joe to wrestle with his own complicity in his son’s death and make stops along the way to mumble his way through halting speeches about bullying at local high schools.
Written by the “Brokeback Mountain” screenwriting team of Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, “Joe Bell” has its heart in the right place but makes missteps along Joe’s journey.
Told with flashbacks interspersed throughout the present-day action, (the story takes place in 2013), “Joe Bell” looks for new ways to tell the true story. Using Joe’s anguish as a starting point, it conjures up images from his imagination to fill the screen while he is on his solitary journey. (MILD SPOILER ALERT) Jadin appears as a device for Joe to ease his guilty mind. It’s a way of establishing what could have been, had Jadin not ended his life and mostly it works as Reid gives his character a youthful exuberance that makes his absence in real life more acute.
Minus those scenes “Joe Bell” is a slight film. The message, that kids are marginalized and bullied every day, everywhere, is potent and important but the film’s earnest repetitiveness threatens to reduce the point to a series of platitudes.
Good supporting performances from Miller, Britton and Gary Sinise as a sympathetic police officer, share the screen with Wahlberg who is, essentially, a one note character with a scraggly beard. His inability to truly articulate his feelings hinders the character’s effectiveness. A message movie should have a central character able to bring the moral to life. Wahlberg’s take on Bell is not that character.
“Joe Bell” is a movie about soul searching, with a good message, that never finds its way.