Father-son drama “Joe Bell” has heart, but lacks nuance

Reid Miller and Mark Wahlberg in “Joe Bell.” (Photo Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions.)

A painfully earnest melodrama, “Joe Bell,” opening in area theaters July 23, awkwardly chronicles the title character’s (Mark Wahlberg) walk across America in 2013 to raise awareness about the dangers of bullying LGBTQ youth. Joe Bell’s good intentions, however, are really a substitute for his own journey of self-acceptance. Over the course of this heavy-handed message movie, Joe reflects on his relationship with his gay son, Jadin (Reid Miller). 

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, and written by “Brokeback Mountain” scribes Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry, (and executive produced by Jake Gyllenhaal), the film toggles back and forth in time, tracing Joe and Jadin’s experiences. The fragmented narrative approach is deliberately used to show the impact of Jadin’s life on Joe’s, and Joe’s efforts to speak to others about Jadin. However, this strategy only half works. The father-son talks, which are designed as heart-to-hearts, often come across as sentimental moralizing. 

Reid Miller and Mark Wahlberg in “Joe Bell.” (Photo Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions.)

Moreover, “Joe Bell” buries the lede — what happens with Jadin that motivates Joe — hoping to create big emotional moments. This approach comes across as gimmicky and shameless once revealed. The storytelling, for viewers unfamiliar with the truth, would have been more effective especially if the filmmakers had told Jadin’s story first and then Joe’s. (As for the facts, the film plays loose with some of them, which is a bit irresponsible). 

To its credit, “Joe Bell” has its heart in the right place, and in the film’s best scene, Joe has a soulful talk with a sheriff (Gary Sinise) he meets on his travels. That said, the film also has its share of cringe-inducing moments. A corny bit where Joe and Jadin perform Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” may test viewers’ patience.

Nevertheless, the film’s approach to the topic of tolerance is arguably its biggest issue. Joe Bell is speaking out against bullying and telling parents that they need to let kids be who they are — a lesson Joe learned the hard way. When Jadin comes out to his father, telling his dad that he is being tormented at school, Joe suggests that things will work themselves out. Moreover, Joe is embarrassed when his gay son is practicing cheerleading in front of the house, and yells at him to go practice in the back yard. Joe’s shame at these memories should convey regret, but the impact of these flashbacks never quite resonates. Nor do exchanges between father and son about what it means to “be a man.” The attitudes on display throughout the film are full of stereotype, not nuance — except in the aforementioned scene with Sinise, which is why that moment stands out.

Wahlberg’s performance mostly alternates between him being silent or enraged. He plays Joe as a simple, working-class man who thinks he is doing his best when he is, in fact, hardly trying. His long-suffering wife, Lola (a flinty Connie Britton) certainly knows this, and calls him on his bad behavior before and after he embarks on his “walk for forgiveness.” 

Wahlberg has a handful of outbursts in the film — one comes when Lola gives him an unwanted message — but they feel hammy and contrived. In contrast, the actor’s introspective scenes, as when he doubts he can continue on his trip, feel maudlin and contrived. Curiously, Joe’s speeches do not come across as particularly inspired. (Is this the point?) Given the time, money, and energy that Joe is putting into his advocacy, and how much he wants his efforts “to matter,” one wishes he was seen as being more effective given his minor celebrity status.

Far more compelling are Jadin’s scenes, which include him cozying up with Chance (Igby Rigney), a closeted football player at his school, as well as moments of real despair. A pivotal scene has Jadin questioning the school principal about doing nothing following an incident where he has been bullied by his peers, while his parents sit in near silence.

Most of “Joe Bell” focuses on Jadin’s relationship with his father. Jadin challenges Joe for leaving a diner in Utah after encountering a homophobe. He teases Joe when his dad nervously prepares to go to a gay bar on drag night. And Jadin reprimands Joe for walking out of a football game after Jadin is harassed verbally by fans who throw things at him as he cheers. Jadin is certainly the adult in the parent-child relationship, and while his absolute righteousness could be sanctimonious, it doesn’t make him unlikeable. However, Reid Miller’s engaging performance cannot save this film from being preachy. 

“Joe Bell” strives for poignancy as it hopes to educate people about tolerance, but it lays that valid messages on way too thick.