Directed by: Reinaldo Marcus Green. Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Connie Britton, Reid Miller. Runtime: 1h 30 min. Released: This film premiered at TIFF as a part of the Gala Presentations on Sept. 14, 2020.
This review contains minor spoilers.
Good Joe Bell is a moving story of a father, Joe Bell (Mark Wahlberg), taking a walk from Le Grande, Oregon to New York City, raising awareness about bullying in honor of his son Jadin (Reid Miller).
Written by Brokeback Mountain scribes Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, the film’s told in a structure where we see Joe on his walking trek and then learn about their home life and see flashbacks, filling in the gaps about Jadin’s story and the intense bullying he experienced at school. We see that Joe is an angry person, not necessarily only because his son is gay, he says he doesn’t care about that. He cares about other people’s perception about his son.
Mark Wahlberg is the highlight here, coming to terms with his own anger and processing what everything. Some nice moments come on the trek with his son – especially a sing-along to Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” – and while this drama is nice, it leaves something to be desired in the first half.
There are challenging discussions, but for Joe who’s speaking around the country, he is not a very good speaker. We only get a snippet of his first speech at the beginning of the film, but that snippet underwhelms. It’s the writing that makes this speech poor, a kind-of speech that would make me twiddle my thumbs and get antsy to leave the assembly if I were a high schooler.
There’s power in his speech near the end of the film once we have all the facts, but not giving us these facts from the beginning of the film sacrifices its emotional power. There’s a mid-point twist that changes the dynamic of the film and is emotionally manipulative for a film like this, but this is where the best conversations of the film happen. The second half is where the film hits its stride, as the cast truly carries it as director Reinaldo Marcus Green gets great performances out of his cast.
Connie Britton is solid as Lola Bell, trying to balance out Joe’s anger and being there for Jadin. Reid Miller is great in a vulnerable performance as Jadin, too, tapping into every aspect of his character. The homophobia in this film is crushing, especially when a school counselor suggests to the family they either consider the options of therapy or switching schools, instead of actually punishing the kids who torment Jadin. This lack of help and resources is the real heartbreak in Good Joe Bell.
Maxwell Jenkins as Jadin’s younger brother, Joseph, has an important scene in this film, showing bravery in a scene as he tries to stop his father from doing something he will regret. Jenkins sells his fear well, but Wahlberg captures his silent anger very well in this scene, as the scene says all it needs to without dialogue. Also strong is a brief appearance by Gary Sinise as a local cop that Joe meets on his travels.
There’s a lot of emotions throughout the film because of its characters and great cast, but the screenplay itself is missing something that will make it memorable. There are some great scenes but it isn’t great overall, lacking the same power as the writing duo’s earlier film Brokeback Mountain. It is impossible to capture that magic, but McMurtry and Osana in their second project together don’t come close. With a story this moving and a cast this strong, that’s disappointing.