Academy Award nominee Mark Wahlberg gives a subtle, career-best performance as a complicated man on a mission in Joe Bell. Based on a true story, the film (from Brokeback Mountain writers Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry) follows a working class Oregonian father on his long, strenuous walk across the country in support of his gay son. His journey of speaking out against bullying becomes one of self-reflection and, as a result, Joe Bell becomes a character study of a very flawed, very human father.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men; upcoming King Richard) introduces us to teenage Jadin, an energetic cheerleader at his rural high school where he is the only openly gay student in 2013. If this had been a fictional film and in no way based on true events, I would have critiqued it for being unrealistic. It would be nearly impossible to believe there was only one openly gay student and equally as far fetched to believe he would be relentlessly bullied for being gay. Yet, despite the progress that the LGBTQ community has made (even in the 15 years since the release of Ossana and McMurtry’s Brokeback Mountain, this happened. The brilliance of Wahlberg helming a project like this as lead actor and producer lies in his ability to draw in audiences who might need to see a story like this. Joe Bell wanted to change the mind of at least one person, and perhaps Walhberg can, too.
Reid Miller portrays an emotionally conflicted Jadin Bell with heartbreakingly raw honesty. He doesn’t fit in at school and despite his mother’s best efforts (Connie Britton in an unsurprisingly poignant performance as Lola Bell), he doesn’t quite fit at home either. His father doesn’t reject him for coming out as gay, but he never fully accepts him either, making for a more dimensional relationship rarely depicted on screen.
While we never quite feel the impact of Bell’s anti-bullying visits to high schools across the country, it’s his run-in encounter with a local sheriff (Gary Sinise) that grounds the film as a whole. Along with Britton, Sinise was Wahlberg’s choice for the Joe Bell supporting cast and both play as close to “real” as you can get. It’s worth watching for the cast. With nuanced, vulnerable performances, they make you care. And when you care, you listen. And when you listen, you learn. That’s the point of Joe Bell, movie and man.
Joe Bell opens in theaters July 23.