Joe Bell (2021)


There’s obviously good intentions meant in the making of a film like Joe Bell. Projecting such intentions is a fine line to toe though, and, despite such capable talent as director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men, King Richard) and writers Diana Ossana and Larry McMurty (the co-writing duo behind the filmic adaptation of Brokeback Mountain), there’s such emotional manipulation imbued that its ultimate message gets lost in the shuffle

That message is important – without question – as bullying, especially pertaining to those that identify as queer, is something still quite rampant in today’s society, but Joe Bell oft feels more like a vehicle to humanise star Mark Wahlberg in a manner that so few of his other projects have; the actor’s own questionable background involving racially-driven assaults from his teen years also playing into account within the film’s manipulative temperament.

Based on a true story, the titular character (played by Wahlberg) is an Oregon father who takes to travelling across the US in a bid to preach kindness and tolerance, issues that are of particular relevance in his household. Joe’s son, Jadin (Reid Miller), is gay and quite proud of his status on his school’s cheerleading team, but living that truth doesn’t come without its challenges of being cruelly targeted by fellow bullying students. Joe’s intent on preaching the importance of acceptance seems to indicate his nature of being a loving father, but when Jadin expresses his true nature there’s an odd silence, almost indifference to the news that makes Joe’s choice to spread the good word all the more perplexing as the film paints him as quite a volatile human.

For anyone unfamiliar with the particulars of the story, I will purposely leave out one of the film’s main hooks regarding Joe and Jadin’s dynamic as they travel together. It’s unlikely to be entirely surprising in its revelation, and, quite sadly, it only further fuels the film’s calculating fire. I don’t think Green had the intention of making a bitter movie, but the delicacy in which this story should be handled is sorely botched. Ultimately, Joe Bell feels like a film made by heterosexual artists for a heterosexual audience, hoping that the rather aggressive, mawkish manner the material has been attacked will skewer the mindset of the viewer. Queer audiences are all too familiar with these types of tales, and having an explosive personality like Joe Bell – played by someone like Wahlberg – represent a “saviour” figure is, in all honesty, quite insulting.

Wahlberg’s Joe is the focus of the movie, where it really should have been equally operated by both him and Miller’s Jadin. The young actor truly proves to be the film’s greatest asset, and some of the emotional depth he expresses leans in to the narrative’s heart-breaking core, something Wahlberg often strains to achieve. As long as the film’s message shines through however, that’s ultimately going to be Joe Bell‘s success – it’s just a shame that the pure intent is undone by emotional scheming.

Joe Bell is now screening in Australian cinemas

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • There are a lot of things that strike me about your review, first of all that your most likely justifiable anger based on your own experience is blinding you to being able to see other human beings.

    Wherever there’s anger there’s usually good reason and again I imagine there is for you,
    nevertheless, I didn’t see Joe Bell as the hero in this film, but as a portrait of a flawed human being needing and going through a gut wrenching experience of transformation which can only happen when people face their inner demons.

    It strikes me that you want conversion in flawed people, and yet when someone who shows their odious and repugnant side goes through a transformation, all you do is castigate the former self. that’s a catch 22.

    I think the film shows Joe Bell’s fear, aggression and mixed parenting, though I don’t see it making him out to be a savior or hero. What I see by the end is his devastating and increasing self-awareness regarding the mistakes he made, the brokenness in his personality and what he contributed to his son’s despair. The movie shows the tension in a real family with a wife and surviving son one minute loving him and another moment utterly repelled by him. This is a very realistic portrayal of a broken family. His “I love you” followed by a command to hear it back, show his fear and insecurity and even his awareness that somehow he is really messed up. He’s trying to kid himself that he’s not messed up by forcing people to tell him they love him. A person watching with emotional intelligence cringes and sees the ugliness of the command, but also underneath it, his incredible vulnerability, desperation and repression of a truth that is trying to force its way into consciousness.

    Secondly, the manner in which you take on this film almost feels like that which you critique. And I would suspect it’s so because your own anger is still too raw for you to see the way it can make you become that which you reject, as well as to miss the incredibly raw, slow and gradually incremental nature of human transformation.

    I agree with you about the son, he was utterly luminous and an incredible actor and I would have loved to see more of him as well. But you sure missed the boat on recognizing a film willing to show some of the ugly truth about a real human being undergoing transformation.

    And yes, Mark Wahlberg’s early exploits as a teenager are ugly but I have no idea who he is now nor do you. Do you want people to transform or not? Or would you rather just stay on your high horse?

  • PS: Perhaps what you labeled as “savior” (totally misplaced because it doesn’t show him saving anyone, except perhaps himself, and only with the help of his son’s memory) was actually showing Joe Bell’s courage in facing himself, and courage indeed it takes to face full self, including ugly inner demons. I’d posit that not many do it, and the film is an invitation to do just that.
    It also showed that the son had remarkable wisdom and courage all along – and that he suffered greatly to get there. there is no authentic self without suffering.
    The father had much less wisdom and courage and it took him time to get there, but in the end the film revealed the possibility of courage, connection and love for those who are willing to pay the price and dare pursue it.


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