by Aprille Hanson-Spivey
Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller & Connie Britton
Runtime: 1 hour & 34 minutes
“Joe Bell” is a roller coaster of emotions, with deep highs and lows knowing that it’s based on a true story. The drama stars Mark Walberg as Joe Bell, a working class father who treks across the United States from his home in La Grande, Ore., to New York City sharing the story of his son and promoting anti-bullying for LGBTQ youth.
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, the film packs in as much heartache and mild redemption in its hour and 34-minute run time.
The story is a mix of flashbacks of the relationship between Joe Bell and his gay teenage son Jadin Bell (masterfully portrayed by Reid Miller). It’s a tale likely familiar to too many LGBTQ youth in America in that his father doesn’t disown his son but tries his best to ignore the fact that he’s gay. One of several heartbreaking scenes happens when Bell yells at his son to practice his cheerleading routine with his friend in the backyard because he can’t hear the TV inside the house with all the cheers and shouting. It’s a profound moment in that Jadin feels the shame and embarrassment his father feels for him.
Bell is already walking across America when the film opens, his son Jadin by his side. And the two share special father-son moments, but the audience learns (if they didn’t already know going into the movie) that these moments are all in Bell’s mind.
In the film and in real life, 15-year-old Jadin Bell hanged himself Jan. 19, 2013, from a play set at a local elementary school. His death is revealed about midway into the movie when Joe Bell goes to a gay bar and drag queen show on one of his stops across the country. The suicide, not seen, occurs later in the film.
The true tragedy of the film is watching this happy teenager, who tells his brother he’s “stronger than he looks,” get repeatedly bullied and attacked, eventually finding suicide as his only way out. Miller’s performance and his desperation at the end of Bell’s life is raw, honest and an important portrayal for anyone who has an LGBTQ child or who doesn’t understand what kind of impact bullying can have on a teenager.
Lost and grieving, Bell leaves his wife Lola (played by talented Connie Britton) and younger son Joseph Bell (Maxwell Jenkins) at home to walk to New York City, a place his son always wanted to go. By the film’s end, it turns out to be somewhat of a redemption story for Joe Bell. But it takes a long time to get there. Bell’s personality did not suddenly change just because his son died and his journey starts out as a way to work past his own guilt without having to change. A key moment in a diner shows two men spouting anti-gay slurs. The figment of Jadin tells his father to go talk to them, but the most he can muster is sharing his name and a business card about his mission. He’s not ready to confront the hatred, and Jadin lets him know it.
It’s an interesting choice by the filmmakers to really never show much of his talks at these different towns and organizations he stops at. They also do not show the bullies again after Jadin’s death, other than Lola telling Bell that a note was left on Jadin’s grave apologizing, which pushes Bell into a fit of rage.
Wahlberg’s portrayal of Bell is one many men could likely relate to. Yes, the film is titled for him and most of it is centered on his own guilt. But more than that, the story is about the importance of change and if even one parent with an LGBTQ youth or any viewer sees this and readjusts their attitude from adversary to advocate, it’s a story worth telling.