Joe Bell

Review by Rich Cline | 2.5/5

Joe Bell
dir Reinaldo Marcus Green
scr Diana Ossana, Larry McMurtry
prd Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Riva Marker, Eva Maria Daniels, Cary Joji Fukunaga
with Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton, Maxwell Jenkins, Gary Sinise, Igby Rigney, Morgan Lily, Blaine Maye, Coral Chambers, Scout Smith, David H Stevens, Blake Barlow
release US 23.Jul.21
20/US Roadside 1h34

wahlberg britton sinise

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miller and wahlberg
Based on a true story, this warm drama about the dangers of homophobia coasts on Mark Walhberg's star power. But the true lead is young actor Reid Miller, who plays the gay son. It's always a problem to tell a queer story through straight eyes, but at least this is strikingly shot in beautiful locations. And its important message may get through to those who don't want to hear it.
In Oregon, hot-headed working-class Joe (Wahlberg) is upset to learn that his 15-year-old son Jadin (Miller) is being bullied at school for his sexuality. But Joe struggles with his response. Even when he and Lola (Britton) witness this bigotry firsthand, Joe seems more worried about hatred aimed at the family than how Jadin must feel. In an effort to make things right, Joe sets out to walk across America delivering a message against prejudice on his way to New York. He's not a particularly good speaker, but along the way he becomes a news story.
The film cuts back and forth between the family at home and Joe's later road trip to self-discovery. Both sections reveal details about the bonds between father and son, with added textures provided by Lola and younger son Joseph (Jenkins). Meanwhile, a range of homophobia is on display, from offhanded remarks to physical assault. Jadin's spark of attraction with a closeted jock (Rigney) is nicely underplayed in a way almost nothing else is.

Wahlberg puts a lot of heart into his performance. But the actor's cultivated image as a manly man is distracting; he has never seemed particularly tolerant on or off screen. So the role itself, like Joe's trek, feels like an act of repentance. By contrast, Miller brings revelatory insight as a boy horrified by the way grown-ups around him have not just let him down but vilified him in the process. And in a late appearance, Sinise offers deeper observations through sympathetic eyes.

Told through Jadin's perspective, this would be a much more devastating story. Instead, this approach is swamped with platitudes, so Joe's arc can only speak in the subtext, as he reluctantly discovers that masculinity has nothing to do with being tough, sporty or willing to fight. It's Jadin's comments that linger, noting how unspeakably painful it is to be hated by people you don't know for something you can't change. And it seems irresponsible that the film neglects to offer any real hope.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 17.Jul.21

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© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall