Everyone copes with loss in their own way. Some believe that there are things they could have done differently in order to prevent or delay another person’s death, and that guilt spurs them into action once they are gone. A grand gesture can’t bring back someone who has died, but it can have a tremendous impact on the one doing it and the community at large. Walking across the country to spread a message of inclusion for his son is the ultimate act of tribute for one father in Joe Bell.
In the film’s opening scene, Joe Bell (Mark Wahlberg) walks along the side of a highway conversing with his son Jadin (Reid Miller). Joe has decided to do a cross-country tour from La Grande, Oregon to reach his son’s intended destination, New York City, and to educate anyone who will listen along the way about the dangers of bullying. Flashbacks show how Jadin came to his parents about how his being gay and participating in cheerleading were resulting in horrific abusive behavior, and how Joe asserted his love for his son without truly understanding how to show it.
This is the latest film about people taking a very physical approach to closure, setting out to walk a great distance to prove to themselves that they care enough about introspection and their impact on the world. Like Wild and others, this film is based on a true story of the real Joe and Jadin Bell, one that should resonate deeply with anyone who continues to see the baseless hatred expressed by so many who believe one person’s expression of self is somehow harmful to their own ignorant existence.
This film does take certain stylistic liberties in the telling of its story, most notably its framing device. While the specific circumstances of what prompts Joe’s journey aren’t portrayed until about halfway through the film, it’s clear from the start and from the way that scenes are shot that Joe is doing this walk alone. Jadin’s presence is about how he continues to live on in his father’s memories, and how Joe desperately clings to what he wishes he had said in order to enable himself to go on after this unbearable loss.
Because this film is mostly about relationships, Joe and Jadin’s dynamic is featured most prominently. Those scenes are largely imagined since, again, Joe goes on this trek by himself, and as a result the script consists primarily of Joe challenging or affirming his own beliefs about how he’s been able to change his own perspective from that of a typical rugged American male to someone more accepting of others who may be different through hallucinated conversations with his son.
What might have been worthwhile to spotlight is the substance of Joe’s talks to each group he got the chance to speak to, and how he explained his own experience of coming around to a new way of thinking. For a film based on a true story, much of what Joe is seen saying feels quite general and unspecific, casting a wide net of acceptance that doesn’t make room for substantial, lasting growth. Especially in today’s age of a larger spectrum of identity and expression than ever before, this film feels bizarrely vague.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green has previously demonstrated an ability to deal deftly with complicated subject material in Monsters and Men, and screenwriters Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry, best known for their Oscar-winning collaboration on Brokeback Mountain, are well-equipped to tell sensitive and affecting stories about marginalized populations. Yet there’s something missing from Joe Bell, a film that commemorates the open-mindedness and perseverance of one man but doesn’t manage to capture his essence in bringing his message to the screen.
Joe Bell premieres exclusively in theaters on Friday, July 23rd.