Mark Wahlberg delivers a heartfelt performance for director Reinaldo Marcus Green in Roadside Attractions Joe Bell. The film pulls its story from the true story of a small town, working-class father, Joe Bell (Wahlberg), who embarks on a solo walk across the U.S. to crusade against bullying after his son Jadin (Reid Miller) takes his own life due to the torment in his school high school for being gay. Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, the Academy Award-winning duo who wrote Brokeback Mountain, pen the script for Joe Bell.
The opening scene of Joe Bell introduces us to the titular character in the midst of hooking up a brand-new High Definition TV. Immediately it is clear that Joe is somewhat selfish, as he mentions to his wife Lola (Connie Britton) that he promises the new washing machine is next. The look on Lola’s face all women know. The glare that says she has heard this tune before. However, she brushes it off. We then meet Jadin, who is afraid of the news he is about to tell his parents.
In traditional alpha male fashion, Joe is more concerned with the football game and cannot notice his son’s body language. Lola mentions to Joe that she already knows and pleads with him to hear their firstborn out as he reveals he is gay. As a father myself, the moment was somewhat tough to watch as Wahlberg truly nails the opening moments. Rather than understand the differences in his son or try to accept them, Joe thinks it is just a phase and brushes him off. It is a strong start to the film.
In the role of Jadin, Reid Miller gives a stunning breakout performance. One of the things I love about the characterization of Jadin is the script never turns him into a superhero. Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry know that the film should highlight Joe and his forgiveness arc. Miller portrays Jadin as a typical fifteen-year-old who happens to be gay. He never pushes his views on anyone nor comes off as overly flamboyant. I commend the writers for avoiding a Hollywood moment where Jadin makes over one of his parents just for the sake of a laugh.
The scenes of Joe interacting with Jadin’s “ghost” come off with tact and class. Kudos to director Reinaldo Marcus Green for the approach as Wahlberg and Miller come across entirely believable as father and son. I will say that while Joe Bell is a true story and some do know Jadin’s fate, I wish that the marketing handled the reveal a bit better. When Joe reveals this, there is a moment that may have hit harder if the studio dealt with the marketing differently.
The rest of the cast compromises unknowns. However, Connie Britton provides her usual solid supporting work as Jadin’s mother. Britton is heartbreaking during her scene; that is her moment to shine. The script does hint at Britton not fully being on board with Joe and his decisions, and I did want a bit more of that story, but as I mentioned earlier, this is Joe’s story. Gary Sinise also pops up for an extended cameo in the film’s third act. Which, for me, added to the realism of the film.
Joe Bell runs a brief ninety minutes, and that is my biggest issue with the film. There is enough story here for a limited three-part miniseries. However, I get the feeling that the studios wanted to keep it short and to the point. That said, Joe Bell has the misfortunate of being released in the summer, when in reality it is more of a fall movie. Pre-COVID, Joe Bell is the kind of movie you would push for awards, particularly Wahlberg and Bell. However, Post-COVID, the film will come and go. That is a shame, too, as it is a beautiful story that deserves an audience.
Final Grade: B +
Joe Bell opens in limited release on July 23rd.