Sometimes we get movies about perpetuators of negativity learning that what they’re perpetuating is bad, actually. Best Picture winner Green Book is a good example of this from a couple yers back. Instead of focusing on Mahershala Ali’s Dr. Shirley, a Black man traveling through the American South in the 1960s, that film focuses on the mindset change in Viggo Mortensen’s white, prejudiced character, Tony Lip has.
The latest release of this type of movie is Joe Bell, which tells the true story of the title character (Mark Wahlberg), who decides to walk across the U.S. from Oregon to New York to spread an anti-bullying message in honor of his gay son Jadin (Reid Miller). So again, it’s not a movie about the son’s struggles with being openly gay in a deeply conservative part of the country, but about the dad’s journey to realizing the part he may have played in the difficulties the son faced.
I appreciate Wahlberg’s attempt to potentially play against type here… but he’s totally just being Mark Wahlberg with an (inconsistent) accent. Joe’s motivation to be against bullying seems to begin and end with not wanting his son to be bullied, full stop. While he’s not the stereotypical movie dad who is ready to kick his son out of the house because of his sexuality (which actually brings some uniqueness to the character), he still doesn’t stand up for his son the way he should. He wants his son to act less gay around his bullies so they stop picking on him, instead of, you know, having the bullies change their mindset, and therefore their actions.
So the film begins by following Joe as he’s walking across the country. At this point, he’s only made it to Idaho and he’s accompanied by Jadin himself. Joe and Jadin have an interesting dynamic. Joe’s gruff and quick-tempered while Jadin’s lively and vibrant. Their personalities clash, but as father and son, they still love each other. There are also tender moments scattered throughout where you can see Joe’s facade start to crack. He sings along to Jadin’s rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” and tries to learn the beginning of Jadin’s cheerleading routine.
But about an hour into the movie, we’re treated to a twist, though oddly enough, I’m not sure if it was meant to be perceived as such or if I just wasn’t paying good enough attention. But whether it’s supposed to be a twist or if I was supposed to have realized it all along, it throws off the movie’s tone and momentum. It took me about 15 minutes to recalibrate myself to understand where the story was going and how I was supposed to feel about what was happening on screen. It’s just a very perplexing choice by the filmmakers.
That being said, you can tell director Reinaldo Marcus Green felt like he was making a very important movie, when in fact, its filmmaking and story choices are more puzzling than anything. The ending even brings everything to an abrupt halt and left me more baffled than moved walking out of the theater. Again, you can feel the earnestness and sincerity behind everything, but it all feels a bit too incongruous.
I’m not sure there was any better way to tell this story than what the filmmakers chose, because true story that it’s based on and the message the movie is trying to send seem to be pieces of two different puzzles and aren’t really compatible. Telling the story of the parent of a gay son who tries, but doesn’t quite understand his child is a worthy endeavor, and that’s very clearly what Joe Bell wants to be, but it doesn’t quite land on it. Trying to fit a story and message together which are incompatible kind of does a disservice to both the real life events and the movie itself.