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Review: Mark Wahlberg struggles to hold emotional weight of 'Joe Bell'

Courtesy of Roadside Attractions


An endearing, based on a true story, drama about a father walking across America spreading messages of anti-bullying for anyone who’ll take the time to listen, “Joe Bell” certainly has its heart in the right place, but Reinalo Marcus Green’s struggles balancing the emotional weight against Mark Wahlberg’s misplaced performance. A simple tale where a blue-collar, middle-aged man comes to terms with the behavior which lead to his bulled gay son to commit suicude, “Joe Bell” ironically finds itself at a crossroads. It wants to be a story about the Joe Bell’s of the world stepping up and being allies for the LGTBQ community, and how intolerance lead to his son, Jadin’s, death. In trying to accomplish the best of both worlds, Green undercuts the heart of the narrative and leaves the impact of Jadin’s legacy hanging in the balance.

The performances seldomly hold their own as the script rarely knows how to use them. Wahlberg, playing the everyman, doesn’t have to look hard at finding the gruffled range necessary in achieving bare minimal levels of believability. At least he gives a story centered on LGTBQ youth a mainstream appeal (something tells me folks might not see the film otherwise). However, Reid Miller steals the show playing Jadin, Joe’s openly gay, flamboyent son who wants to feel seen and heard. The film peaks when Miller conveys a range of emotions stemming from bullies tormenting and harassing him; a later scene, when he tries to report the abuse, results in victim shaming by the school principal. It’s a heartbreaking portrayal from Miller who gives the film its pulse and carries the weight of those hard-to-stomach sequences.

But sadly, “Joe Bell” is about just that: Joe Bell, and it feels like an odd mismatch. The pic begins in Idaho as Joe and Jadin walk down the highway, miles away from their New York City destination. The mission is for Joe to raise awareness for anti-discrimnation/bullying, taking detours into local communities to preach the message. Written by Diana Ossana and Larry McMurty, “Joe Bell” splices these scenes together nicely alongside flashbacks about Joe’s eventual acceptance of his son’s sexuality. There’s speed bumps along the way, but the film is keen on the growth and range shown by Joe than it is about Jadin who actually went through the hardships and whose character is more fascinating.

It’s hard to root for Wahlberg who reverts to playing the simple-minded, hallmark father figure trying to alter his attitude. And he does it well by sticking to the melodramatic weepie formula (of which “Joe Bell” rarely shies away from). For the Oscar winner, it’s a smart vehicle where he can show range and tout the film’s overall message of self reflection and inclusion (the type of role award bodies love to reward).

An abrupt ending leaves plenty to be desired (no build-up or indication, just lights out) as does Connie Brittion playing the fraught, grieving mother taking care of their child during Joe’s soul searching quest. These tackier elements will help casual moviegoers digest what the movie is selling, but the wishy-washy approach undermines an otherwise inspirational story.

Grade: C

JOE BELL debuts in theaters Friday, July 23rd


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