Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, where the film was titled “Good Joe Bell.” Solstice Studios releases the newly edited film in select theaters on Friday, February 19.
Early in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s delicate drama “Joe Bell,” the eponymous Joe Bell (Mark Wahlberg) — thought not yet “good” enough — makes a promise to his family. “I’m going to try to be better,” the small-town husband and father vows, and such is the theme of this true life story, a wrenching examination of the price of forgiveness, and how even the best of intentions may not ever be enough. While formulaic on its face, Green’s film resists the sort of obvious cinematic catharsis expected of such a story, resulting in a final product that earns its emotional beats.
Scripted by “Brokeback Mountain” duo Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, Green’s “Of Monsters and Men” followup is based on a true story, and even viewers not familiar with the real tale of Joe and Jadin Bell will likely see some of its bigger “twists” coming — and for those who don’t, well, prepare your tissues. Green and his cast toggle between a demanding narrative structure, introducing Joe in the middle of a planned walk across America, before zipping back in time to show the incidents that inspired the stunt.
A swaggering blue-collar family man, Joe is not prepared for the news that his eldest son Jadin (Reid Miller in a breakout performance) is gay, and even though he does his best (well, in his mind) to let his son know he’s there for him, it’s not what Jadin wants. When Joe advises Jadin to simply kick the asses of everyone who is bullying him at school (a real “rub some dirt on it!” take on life), it’s plain to everyone but Jadin’s dad that such a thing will never, ever happen. His mother Lola (an understated Connie Britton) and best friend Marcie (a strong Morgan Lily) offer their own support, but Jadin’s life is far more unmanageable than the sunny sophomore is willing to let on.
Still, some of that brightness finds an outlet while on the road with Joe, who’s determined to hoof it across the country while delivering talks about the insidiousness of bullying, and who spends the film’s first half trying to make his own kind of amends with the charming Jadin. As the duo make their way along country roads, Joe begins to exhibit the sort of warmth he never could at home, and the Bell men bond in unexpected ways (no, really, there’s a Lady Gaga singalong buried in here, and it’s wonderful). But as what happened before the trip begins to weave into what’s happening during it, “Joe Bell” is at the mercy of some real manipulative storytelling, a narrative feint that most viewers will be able to see a mile away.
But Green seems to be wholly aware of the familiar shape of his film, and when the blunt truth of Joe’s walk is delivered in — of all places — a local gay bar filled with colorful and caring characters, “Joe Bell” somehow subverts the well-trod path it has followed. Joe is often at the mercy of an untamed rage, sometimes directed at the ones he loves most, really meant for the world at large, and it’s difficult to walk away from the film without feeling a hefty portion of that anger. That’s because “Joe Bell” eventually has to abandon the tropes of the feel-good true-life family drama, as they simply don’t fit what actually happened to the Bells.
While Green’s film is at the mercy of Joe’s perspective, insights into Jadin’s experience peek their way into the narrative, from flashbacks to the bullying that swallowed his high school experience whole to a heartbreaking essay Lola finds later in Joe’s walk. And though Jadin’s trauma is the inciting incident of Joe’s journey, “Joe Bell” is about Joe’s story and his own pain; even that can sometimes feel impenetrable in a film that waits too long to deliver its most pressing messages. Wahlberg can’t always bridge the yawning gaps between Joe’s emotional swings, but that’s where Miller shines brightest, and the young performer adds hefty emotional ballast in many necessary moments.
Despite some big swings in its latter half — including a series of wrenching scenes that push Wahlberg, Miller, Britton, and Maxwell Jenkins as the younger Bell sibling into some deep water — “Joe Bell” is often at its most stirring in the smaller moments. Intimate cinematography from Jacques Jouffret, heavy on close-ups and rendered in a muted palette, helps capture them best, from a camera holding just so long on Wahlberg after that bar-set revelation to a wider shot of a gently crumpling young face in the crowd during one of Joe’s anti-bullying talks.
That quietness takes hold in the film’s final moments, which seem destined to haunt viewers who have stuck with this poignant ride (or walk) from the start and may be hopeful about where the path to forgiveness will take them. The answer isn’t an easy one, but that’s a risk Joe Bell was willing to take before he set off on his journey, and one that pays off for Green’s graceful film.
“Joe Bell” premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.
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