Criticizing Joe Bell feels awkward because the movie has its heart in the right place. Based on a true story, it's a well-intentioned picture that addresses its themes with sincerity. Regrettably, one misguided storytelling choice after another undermines any potential impact. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green wants to get you choked up with tears, but rolling your eyes is the more likely physical reaction.
Mark Wahlberg plays the title character. When we meet him, he has embarked on a cross-country walking tour to spread an anti-bullying message to anyone who will listen. He's accompanied by his son Jadin (Reid Miller). In fact, it was Jadin who inspired the walk, having been badly bullied at school for being gay. Despite seemingly having a passion for the subject, Joe isn't particularly good at expressing himself. When he overhears a guy using a homophobic slur in a diner, he hands the man a business card and encourages him to check out a website. Jadin promptly calls his dad on the ineffectiveness of that approach. Connie Britton co-stars as Lola, Joe's wife who supports his trek because, frankly, she got a little sick of his initial response to their son's coming out.
Here's where things begin to go off-track. After a fairly strong start, Joe Bell reveals that something about the situation is not what it has seemed. This deception is unnecessary because there were other, more natural ways of achieving what the story is trying to do. Going with a “gotcha” approach simply feels manipulative, like the movie wants to arbitrarily rock you with a surprise. Even if you know the “secret” in advance, nothing about it adds to the plot in any significant or meaningful way.
That leads to a bigger problem, which is that the movie isn't sure whose story it wants to tell. Joe's journey is interspersed with flashbacks showing Jadin's issues with bullying and feeling that no one is there to support him. Honestly, the boy's story seems more urgent. Joe is just walking and occasionally giving bad lectures. An old adage in filmmaking says “show, don't tell.” Joe Bell would have been significantly improved by showing us the underlying reason its lead character is compelled to perform this crazy feat. Instead, it tells us, repeatedly and unconvincingly. We should care deeply about what Joe is doing, not feel ambivalent about it.
After almost an hour-and-a-half of fairly maudlin proceedings, Joe Bell comes to a bizarre ending. I didn't know the true story beforehand, so when I saw how the picture concludes, I thought, “That can't possibly be real.” A quick Google search revealed that it was. Obviously, there's nothing wrong with staying true to the facts. The movie does nothing with the truth about the real Joe, though. By merely sticking to what happened without putting it into a larger context or having some sort of coda to give it meaning, the film's conclusion feels anticlimactic. If there's no bigger picture, what's the point in telling this story?
Wahlberg is actually quite good in the lead role, and Reid Miller gives a strong performance as Jadin. Joe Bell additionally has a few nice scenes in the third act between Joe and a law enforcement official played by Gary Sinise. Several of the individual scenes hint at what the movie might have been with a screenplay that had a firmer grasp on what it wanted to do. But taken as a whole, this is a movie that misses its chance to say something really important by opting for cheap sentiment over emotional depth.
out of four
Joe Bell is rated R for language including offensive slurs, some disturbing material, and teen partying. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.