Mark Wahlberg isn’t up to the emotional legwork of the anti-bullying drama Joe Bell

Reid Miller and Mark Wahlberg in Joe Bel
In Joe Bell, Mark Wahlberg plays a father on a pilgrimage - a country tour designed to take him from Oregon to New York City on foot, with stops along the way to speak out against bullying, whoever is listening. This is either a very good or a very bad cast. Given his history of hate crime, Wahlberg lands at the bottom (probably right below Mel Gibson) of Hollywood stars who could credibly preach, on screen or off-screen, about the importance of accepting others than you. On the other hand, there is an element of atonement for the March for Change initiated by the eponymous Joe Bell. He is at least partially on the move to make up for his own intolerance. One has to assume that Wahlberg didn't need any research or method acting techniques to get into the role.
By Joe's side on this long hike is his teenage son, Jadin (Reid Miller), who comes to high school meetings where his father talks awkwardly (and rather briefly) about the importance of accepting people the way you are. Jadin is gay, and it is his honor that Joe marches to raise awareness of the type of relentless abuse the boy has suffered at his small-town school. Joe Bell cuts scenes of both arguments and bonds en route to the events of several months when Jadin came to his family and community. This flashback structure comes from screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, who also wrote the Oscar-winning adaptation of Brokeback Mountain - a more elegant drama about the burden placed on gay men who are just trying to live in a country that is hostile to their existence.
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This time, Ossana and McMurtry looked for source material, not fiction. Anyone who knows what the real Bell family went through immediately recognizes the narrative delusion of the early scenes, which withhold information a simple Google search would reveal. Without "spoiling" this tragic true story, we're simply saying that it is a questionably tasteful choice made for dramatic and emotional purposes - a "twist" the film occasionally risks protecting. For example, would a school principal really not provide context to a gathering of students as to why this particular father is here to speak to them about the dangers of bullying? Though Joe allegedly traverses America to educate and engage in empathetic discussions, the film only drafts a handful of encounters for him - in part because he spends so much time hiding the nature of what he might actually argue with the strangers who he meets.
As the flashbacks show, Joe is more casual than an angry homophobe: he doesn't directly reject his son, but he wrestles with embarrassment about what the neighbors might think. There are some nuances in this characterization that can be true to the real Joe Bell or just to many parents like him; After all, not every father who abandons his child during the difficult coming-out phase of his life is a disapproving tyrant. Narrative, it feels comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. While the film escapes the daunting task of instilling sympathy for a blasphemous fanatic, it is also forced to tell a story of salvation that is less clear than someone who has had a complete, transformative change of heart. Joe's journey is about realizing that he could have been more supportive - a gradual revelation that director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters And Men) doesn't effectively through montages of sad country songs, shaky close-ups of Wahlberg's contorted face, and a heartfelt to meet heart with the local sheriff (Gary Sinise) Joe meets in Colorado just before the film has to get to depicting the other tragedy that befell the Bells.
“It means well” is the weak praise with which one condemns a film like this. Maybe it could have worked with another star. Wahlberg, on the other hand, is not exactly convincing as a narrow-minded man trying to compensate for the biased mistakes of his past. He looks most comfortable at the beginning of the movie when he's acting like a dad and son comedy buddy; The actor's comedic chops take a bit of the cornball crack from a scene in which gruff Joe surprises Jadin by accompanying him in the chorus of "Born This Way". But Wahlberg, who delivers what feels like community service, is simply unable to advance a drama whose conflicts are almost entirely internal; his default setting of sneering irritation is the wrong tool for the job. It leaves you wondering if this should have been Jadin's story, especially given the sensitivity of Miller's move. "I made it about myself," Joe Bell finally admits of his son's fight. Joe Bell does the same, and when his heart is in the right place, his dramatic priorities aren't.
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Mark Wahlberg
American actor and producer

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