Quiet Drama ‘Joe Bell’ Tells a True Story of Grief and Forgiveness

Mark Wahlberg shows his more emotional side in his latest drama, “Joe Bell.” Based on a true story, Wahlberg plays the title character, a grieving father who undertakes a journey in order to do right by his son, Jadin (Reid Miller), a victim of vicious bullying who took his own life at age 15. To honor him, Joe decides to walk across the country on foot, from his small Oregon town to New York, the city where Jadin had dreamed of starting a new life, preaching against bullying and intolerance along the way. But “Joe Bell” isn’t a rousing inspirational story about some great public speaker, but a rather quiet one dealing with grief and other family and internal struggles that follow an untimely death.

It is no big spoiler that Jadin is deceased to anyone going into “Joe Bell,” as it’s mentioned in most every synopsis out there, but screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, the team behind “Brokeback Mountain,” choose to withhold this fact throughout most of the first act. Jadin, actually a figment of his imagination, is with Joe at the beginning of his journey, giving him a push when needed, such as when he walks away from a pair of homophobic truckers instead of engaging with them. Jadin also criticizes his lackluster speeches at high schools, but the teen isn’t just there to push his dad out of his comfort zone. His presence allows Joe to get to know him in a way he never tried to when he was alive, as well as gives the audience a glimpse into who this young man was and what he went through on a daily basis as a gay kid in  a small town.

“Joe Bell” is a film that isn’t necessarily aimed at an LGBTQ audience, but one that strives to help straight people, especially the older generations, understand their struggles. Jadin’s story, told here through flashbacks, isn’t one about a young person questioning their sexuality. Jadin is openly gay and true to himself, but his confidence does little to protect him when a group of football players beat him up in the locker room. While mom Lola (Connie Britton) is somewhat supportive of Jadin, Joe barely tolerates his son being gay. He says he supports Jadin, but his actions prove otherwise, such as when walks out of a football game, dragging Lola with him, in the middle of Jadin’s cheerleading routine. Jadin’s the only boy on the squad, something some of the other parents make ignorant comments about, and instead of sticking up for their son, Joe and Lola bail.

Back in the present day, Joe struggles with his relationship with Lola and their surviving son, Joseph (Maxwell Jenkins), who come to visit him on the road. He picks a fight, but his real issues are internal, as he struggles to forgive himself. These scenes feel authentic, but what comes after feels less so. Joe connects with a local sheriff, Westin (Gary Sinise), also the father of a gay son. The pair have a heart to heart through which Osaana and McMurty deliver a very heavy-handed message. All of this leads to another tragedy. While Bell may not have won over hearts and minds on a mass scale like he set out to do, his story warns parents against making their children’s struggles about themselves. At least here, Joe recognizes his error in doing next to nothing to support Jadin during his lifetime.

Joe Bell” releases July 23 in theaters nationwide.