We’re about 35 minutes into the uneven drama “Joe Bell” when there’s a moment intended to be a major reveal — but it’s based on something that was widely covered in the news in 2013 so it’s hardly a surprise, and worse, it’s handled in a clumsy, unnecessarily blunt way that has us feeling terrible for a minor character who is in just this one scene.
This is indicative of the overall pattern of Reinaldo Marcus Green’s well-intentioned and well-filmed but underwhelming drama, which is based on a true story and features a screenplay from the wonderful team of Diana Ossana and the late great Larry McMurtry, the duo that won Oscar for “Brokeback Mountain” some 16 years ago.
We have great empathy for Mark Wahlberg’s title character, a father who has vowed to walk from his small hometown of LaGrange, Oregon, to New York City to raise awareness after his 15-year-old son Jadin was bullied for being openly gay, and eventually took his own life. When we see ignorant jocks tormenting Jadin, when a tone-deaf counselor suggests Jadin switch schools as if he’s the problem, when Joe stands onstage in a packed auditorium to deliver his message, we’re rooting for Jadin and for Joe every step of the way, but it’s a shame so many of these scenes are so heavy-handed and predictable. “Joe Bell” never quite packs the dramatic punch the real-life story deserves.
Looking scruffy and slightly out of shape (at least for him), Wahlberg gives one of his more grounded performances as Joe, a working-class husband and father in a tightly knit and not particularly progressive community. Joe loves his wife Lola (an underused Connie Britton) and his kids, but he has anger issues and he’s hardly sympathetic when Jadin comes out to him. He says this might just be a phase, advises Jadin not to share this information with anyone else — and when Jadin and a friend (Morgan Lily) practice their cheerleading routines on the front lawn, Joe is mortified and commands them to do that stuff in the backyard where no one can see them.
Reid Miller is a revelation as Jadin, who knows exactly who he is and isn’t about to change or even pretend to change just to make others less uncomfortable. He’s a bright, beautiful, sweet and creative boy, who wants only to leave this backward town and go to school in New York City. But Jadin has also been beaten down by the cruelty and the bigotry and the hatred — and while his mother supports him, his father is in denial and has checked out, e.g., Joe leaves a football game in embarrassment rather than defend his son when jerks start throwing things at Jadin.
Joe’s epic walk is about encouraging tolerance, but it’s as much about his own redemption as his Facebook campaign, which has attracted national media attention. Lola wonders if Joe himself has really changed, even after all the family has been through, and it’s a valid point. Late in the film, Gary Sinise appears as a state trooper who lends a sympathetic ear to Joe, leading to the film’s best scene, when these two middle-aged, macho guys share their stories. If only the rest of the film had struck a similarly authentic, more subtle tone, “Joe Bell” could have been something special.