An underrated part of moviemaking is the casting process. There are certain actors who can play a wide variety of roles, and there are some actors whose range is somewhat limited. No matter how strong a script might be, if you cast the wrong actor(s), the film is going to be hampered.
That’s certainly the case with Joe Bell, which has Mark Wahlberg in its title role. The based-on-real-events drama finds Joe walking across the United States to spread an anti-bullying message in support of his son, Jadin (Reid Miller), who was bullied in their hometown of La Grange, Oregon, for being gay.
The film bounces back and forth between Joe’s time on the road and before the journey, chronicling how hard of a time Jadin had just trying to live his life. Not only do other boys target him at school, but when Jadin tries to confide in Joe at home, Joe’s overbearing nature and machismo prevent him from being able to truly empathize with Jadin’s plight. Joe’s minimal support leads to even greater stress for Jadin, something Joe reflects upon during his walk.
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) and written by the Brokeback Mountain team of Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry, the film fails in its message for a variety of reasons.
The first is trying to hide the real reason Joe is walking across the country. It’s only a slight spoiler to know that Jadin died by suicide because of the bullying, but for some reason Green, Ossana, and McMurtry structure the story so that fact is in question for the first third of the film, even while they hint at it strongly. If they had gone the chronological route, the progression of events would have had a larger impact. Instead, it feels like they’re trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the audience instead of trusting them.
The second reason is the performance of Wahlberg and the character he’s playing. Wahlberg’s inability to believably show emotion has been evident for most of his career — Andy Samberg had a memorable SNL sketch about it — and he struggles mightily trying to do so here. That weakness is compounded by the attitude of Joe, who is very difficult to empathize with because for much of the film he’s just as much of a bully toward his wife (Connie Britton) and his kids as the high school boys are to Jadin.
Additionally, much of Joe’s dialogue on the road only feels like lip service toward his overall message. He’s only shown giving a couple of speeches, both of which are perfunctory and fail to inspire in the slightest. If the point of the film is to show Joe’s transformation from an uneducated jerk to someone who motivates others with his words and actions, the film fails miserably.
And why is the movie so focused on Joe? The person most affected by the events shown is Jadin, but the film spends relatively little time trying to figure out who he is. Late in the film, Joe says, “I just made Jadin’s being gay all about Joe Bell … about me” as a sort of atonement for his sins, but the line comes off as ironic since the movie is also all about Joe Bell, not about Jadin.
The message of Joe Bell is an important one, but its delivery is botched both in the film’s storytelling and poor casting of the lead role. LGBTQ+ people deserve all the support they can get, but this film is not a great example of how to give it.
Joe Bell is playing now in theaters.