Near the beginning of the film is a scene where Joe Bell (Mark Wahlberg) stands in front of an assembled group of high schoolers to speak about bullying. The gruff father shares two points: Understanding begins at home and everything will be fine if you are true to yourself. The story about a dad walking cross country, from Oregon to New York, to raise anti-bullying awareness for his son, often travels with the same slightness. Reinaldo Marcus Green’s redemptive drama “Good Joe Bell,” based on a true story, is a brisk character study that succumbs to its shallow straight gaze.
Set in 2013, Green covers Joe’s journey in a nonlinear fashion by jumping between the tumultuous events afflicting Jadin (Reid Miller) and by capturing Joe’s ongoing walk. Both components, from a screenplay surprisingly written by “Brokeback Mountain” scribes Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, suffers from a shallow inspection of the trauma faced by gay individuals. Especially those living in an insular environment. Jadin, in particular, is thinly rendered. For example, when he joins the cheer squad and falls for Boyd (Blaine Maye), a player on the football team, their relationship only covers two interactions: a furtive kiss at a Halloween party and an awkward exchange in Boyd’s truck. Much as Miller tries — the actor offers a heartbreaking performance — he can’t instill depth into a character solely defined by his torment rather than the life he lived.
In fact, barring a couple of scenes, we only meet two of his friends. Where are the moments where Jadin gets to speak? The problem lies in the perspective. Half of Jadin’s experiences are told from the mouth of Joe, who only knows that his son loved Lady Gaga and wanted to move to New York. One could suppose the scant details reflect how distantly the father knew his son, but that doesn’t track. We never meet Joe as anything less than a misguided, but involved father. However, because the lens suffers from a straight gaze, one where gay culture is only defined by a person loving Gaga’s “Born This Way,” Green is incapable of sufficiently exploring Jadin’s agony.
The best character work happens with Joe. Hot-tempered and guilt-ridden, the dad took this cross-country walking trip to New York because he believes that’s what Jadin would’ve wanted. But his walk really demonstrates what he’d rather avoid. In these scenes, featuring tight natural frames that visualize his narrow emotional bandwidth, Joe can’t face his role in Jadin’s misery. For instance, when his son Jadin comes out to him and also confesses that he’s being bullied at school, Joe flatly ignores the revelation. Instead, citing the boxing lessons he made his sons take — his other boy being the younger Joseph (Maxwell Jenkins) — he asks why Jadin doesn’t defend himself. To Joe, macho pursuits like boxing, hunting, and fishing should have made his son more “manly.” Not a gay teen susceptible to intimidation.
Though lightly sketched, Joe’s self-exploration mirrors Walhberg’s own personal growth. For instance, when Ang Lee approached the actor to star in “Brokeback Mountain,” he turned the director down by citing the “creepiness” of the script. The actor also has a history of bullying, too. In 2015, stories dating back to 1986 arose of Walhberg attacking students by throwing rocks and yelling racial epithets at them. By watching Walhberg in “Good Joe Bell,” one gets the sense that the actor himself is working to change in the same vein as his character. Which for whatever weakness of the film, is admirable on his part.
And in the foreground of Joe’s now uneasy marriage to Lola (Connie Britton)— the pair never really confront their rift — are some heartwarming scenes involving Joe and Jadin singing “Born This Way” and practicing cheers together. But all too often, “Good Joe Bell” bathes in less successful sentimentality, such as a conversation between the father and a sheriff (Gary Sinise), rather than crafting hefty characters. A brisk film that could do with twenty more minutes, Green’s “Good Joe Bell” has its heart in the right place, but the limited gaze the writers and director offer withholds this redemptive tale from being the uplifting critique of homophobia and bullying that it needs to be. [C-]