Based on true events, the well-intentioned “Joe Bell” is a bland and boring melodrama. This tragic story about a father’s journey on foot from Oregon to New York to raise awareness about the harms of bullying aspires to be inspirational, but comes across as insincere.
Joe (Mark Wahlberg) is a scruffy everyman who learns that his eldest son Jadin (Reid Miller) is gay. He accepts and loves the teenager, offering a supportive home environment. But when the bullying gets out of hand at school and Jadin falls into deep despair, Joe decides it’s his life’s purpose to educate the ignorant. He decides to walk across America, traveling with few possessions and a determination to inspire and change perceptions of homosexuality. It’s a tall order for one man, but Joe feels a sense of duty to his son, and wants to show him that he does indeed matter.
You’d think a film about a cross-country journey would feature gorgeous scenery, but there’s very little here. There’s nothing particularly cinematic about the movie, with director Reinaldo Marcus Green putting the story front and center. The problem with doing this is the unfocused storytelling. It’s unclear whose story the film is trying to tell, and it jumps between Joe’s and Jadin’s narrative. There’s a small twist that feels like a cheap “gotcha” because it’s revealed so abruptly. It isn’t shocking, but it pauses the rhythm of the story.
The performances are forgettable, with Wahlberg simply going through the motions. There’s a late cameo from Gary Sinise as a small town Sheriff that has major ripped-from-a-faith-based-project vibes. The quality of the acting, the script, and the direction could be classified as acceptable and nothing more.
The subject matter feels very dated, from the overt and violent homophobia at the hands of student athletes to the themes of self-acceptance and forgiveness between a father and his son. This isn’t to diminish the importance of continuing to talk about the harmful aftermath of chronic bullying or offering support to teens who come out at gay, but the film rests too heavily on its well-intentioned focus.
The heart of “Joe Bell” is in the right place, but that’s not enough to make it a good movie.