Joe Bell Synopsis: The true story of a small town, a working-class father, Joe (Mark Wahlberg), who embarks on a solo walk across the U.S. to crusade against bullying after his son, Jadin (Reid Miller), is tormented in high school for being gay.
Representation and inclusion continue to be challenging issues in the film industry. For every notable step forward (2021 films like In the Heights and Raya and the Last Dragon presented diversity with thought and authenticity), Hollywood still embraces a medley of poorly conceived decisions (Music and Hillbilly Elegy took dated stereotypes to regressive new lows). It’s clear the industry wants positive progress, but studio executives are still learning the difference between meaningful representation and blatant pandering.
Landing in theaters after a tumultuous festival run, the LGBTQ drama Joe Bell falls under a similar trap. While bolstered with good intentions and proper sensitivity, Joe Bell’s inert and self-congratulatory execution adds little to an essential conversation.
The issues are apparent from jump street. This is a potent story centered around the damaging effects of bigotry and intolerance, with Jadin’s all-too-familiar arc touching upon the brokenness left in the wake of hateful targeting. Instead of Jadin’s vital perspective, screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurty fixture their narrative around Joe’s walk for redemption after tragic circumstances. Like Joe himself, the film’s bizarre structuring leaves audiences at a constant distance from Jadin’s pressing struggles. We experience Jadin’s life solely from the viewpoint of after-school special flashbacks and Joe’s solemn reflections, reducing his meaningful story into an ineffective and oddly disconnected narrative.
Without touching into spoilers, the two screenwriters also decide to reorganize the timeline of events. I can understand their intentions, but the questionable execution left me feeling queasy. With most of the Joe scenes traveling through a repetitive cycle without a sufficient arc (the character flip flops between embracing change and going back to his old ways), the change in timeline stands to create a more dramatized narrative, one that feels in poor taste to the film’s real-world origins. Not only does the narrative not work, but its haphazard delivery poorly represents the film’s themes of empathy and communication.
Even with the film’s deficiencies, Joe Bell showcases a few bright spots. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green imbues enough tact and sensitivity to enhance the maudlin melodrama, stripping away overworked Hollywood artifice to create a more toned-down experience (the lack of searing score choices was refreshing). The subdued tones make a great canvas for the cast to shine. Reid Miller is a revelation as Jadin, unearthing nuanced emotions in a demanding performance that features only a handful of frames. Mark Wahlberg is typically imperfect (his attempts at an accent are inconsistent), but I’d rather see the star stretch his wings than settling with blah blockbusters. His performance elicits enough honest truths to represent Joe’s personal reckoning.
Joe Bell is too earnest to condemn, although that doesn’t excuse the film’s lack of impact and understanding. It’s a dated and flatly-conceived attempt at jumpstarting a meaningful conversation.
Joe Bell arrives in theaters nationwide on July 23rd.
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