JOE BELL- Review
This time of year is often thought of as a perfect time for strengthening family bonds. And now this new Summer flick explores this, an “inspired by true events” tale of a father and son, who seem to have little in common aside from DNA. So, are they trying connect via a sport like baseball, or perhaps working on a house or on restoring an old car? No, they’re taking a trip across the USA…the long way…on foot. Of course, there’s more to this journey than leisurely taking in the site from ground level. No, it’s more of a mission to stand up to the forces of ignorance and intolerance, That’s the plan of this story’s weary patriarch, a simple small-town fella’ named JOE BELL.
As this story begins, we’re right alongside Joe (Mark Wahlberg) as he’s pulling a cart that holds his tent, water, and supplies, trudging down a winding road as cars and trucks whiz past. Luckily his eldest son Jadin (Reid Miller) is always “nearby”. The two joke and tease as Joe makes it to a nearby town and addresses another gathered group about the terrors of bullying. The walks and “the talks” are all in support of Jadin. As they hunker down for the night, Joe checks in with his wife Lola (Connie Britton) back in their small Oregon town. We then flashback to earlier in 2013, before the trek, when Jadin came out to Joe, Though he was a bit befuddled, Joe didn’t reject his gay son, reaffirming his love and support. Unfortunately, Jadin felt none of that at his high school, aside from his cheerleading sisters (he’s the only male). When the jeers and harassment escalate, Joe insists that Jadin fight back, but the odds are too great. He can’t “duke it out” with almost everybody. The school administration offers no help and even suggests that he transfer to another district. Then social media trolls attack, as do the “locker room’ thugs. Joe and Connie are there for him, but can’t protect him. Eventually, Joe decides to spread the word, so he enlists sponsors to fund his walking cross-country trek. But can one man stop, or even lessen, the hate?
In the title role, Wahlberg tones down his macho heroic persona to become a believable working-class “everyman”, one whose virtue and sincerity reflect his quieter “heroic’ attributes. Through his voice inflection and awkward stares, we see Joe’s inner conflict as he pushes down the small-town small-mindedness he absorbed growing up in order to try and nurture his son. He can’t quite understand him, or his needs, but truly wants to be a “solid rock’ for Jadin. As that offspring, Miller projects his own strength and vulnerability, never becoming a “symbolic martyr”. He refuses to “blend in” while knowing that his own sense of style etches a glowing target on him. Miller makes us feel his despair as Jadin is pulled under as friends and family flail about and fumble with that needed lifeline. As the family matriarch, Britton as Lola acts as the uniting glue for father and son. She’s more on Jadin’s “wavelength’ and works to expand Joe’s sensibilities and empathy. But Britton shows us her struggles as Joe’s journey leaves her at home to lull herself to sleep with wine and cigarettes. But there’s still another youngster at home to raise. Maxwell Jenkins plays Jadin’s kid brother Joseph, who must deal with the family forces beyond his young mind. It’s a subtle sensitive performance, as “little Joe” must assume a more active role in keeping the Bells unified. Oh, and there’s a lovely “late in the story” supporting work by Gary Sinise as an unlikely kindred soul Joe encounters on that long road.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green keeps the story moving at a brisk pace for most of its sparse 90 minutes, guiding his entire cast to good effect, and makes effective use of the varied landscapes and atmosphere, giving us a taste of all the seasons. The screenplay from Diana Ossana and Larry McMurty never hammers at the heartstrings, though the film almost sinks into melodramatic misery. With that modest runtime, a few more minutes could have been added to give us more insight. Just how does Joe convince his home area to fund his mission (though kudos for showing the ugly side of villages too often “sugar-coated” in the media, from Bedford Falls to Mayberry)? We get bits of Joe’s clunky speeches, but when he nearly gives up, we don’t get much of a listen to Joe’s “second wind” as he must face a packed school gym. Plus a silly mid-film “twist” borrowed from thrillers feels a bit tacky. The film overflows with good intentions but often comes off as a slightly grittier basic cable movie, though strengthened with Wahlberg’s star charisma (usually he saves his more serious work for the Fall). And it doesn’t help that another big “franchise” star is “dressing down” more successfully in an upcoming flick as a “working stiff” (and what does Joe do for a living). Still, the film’s message is delivered with heart and “shoe leather” by the quiet gentleman named JOE BELL.
2.5 Out of 5
JOE BELL opens in select theatres on Friday, July 23, 2021