‘Joe Bell’ is a Mawkish, Condescending and Frustrating Viewing Experience

Roadside Attractions

You ever see a movie that is clearly well intentioned and has its heart in the right place that is just the most infuriating viewing experience ever? One that no amount of loving winks to the camera could possibly save? Also one that so badly wants its audience to feel deep emotions and more importantly, cry, and it just can’t manage to hit any emotional note correctly? Today we’re going to talk about Joe Bell, or Marky Mark Threw the First Brick at Stonewall!

Joe Bell is the story of a a negligent and antagonistic father played by Mark Wahlberg who is fighting for his own redemption after the suicide of his bullied gay son Jadin, for which he is at least partly responsible. He decides to walk from Oregon to New York City to teach people in red states about tolerance. The film is told in a non-linear structure and is mainly about the hardships Joe endures traveling across the country by foot, you know, instead of the story of his 15-year-old son who hanged himself.

Call me a cynic but I don’t think the awful macho father figure who drives his son to kill himself deserves a redemption story. This movie is so focused on how Joe is feeling about any given thing happening it barely stops for a hot minute to address his responsibility in all this. He keeps talking about how bad bullying is and how the school set Jadin up to fail, and the viewer just wants to yell at him, ‘this is all YOUR fault!’ Mark Wahlberg is also just not the man for the job here. It’s impossible to make him likable enough to sell the story and the emotional arc intended. This is so obviously his ‘I’m a serious actor too!’ movie of the year and no you’re not, stop trying. Also, considering his frequent homophobic comments and reports of violence and problematic behavior, we could have had somebody who could actually appear sympathetic play this role, if this movie had to happen at all.

Which brings me to my next point, it feels like this could have been a documentary. Diana Ossana and Larry McMurty’s script is straining so hard and adding lots of filler, way more than a 90-minute-long feature should need. This is Monsters and Men director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s second feature, and he shoots it in that ultra-wide 2:76:1 aspect ratio mostly used in classic action epics, most recently used by Quentin Tarantino in The Hateful Eight. This is presumably to make the most out of the American West vistas and scenic whatever of it all, but there is almost nothing interesting going on here with regard to the cinematography. It also looks dreadful when projected on the standard 1:85:1 screen used in most American movie theaters. Because most of what you’re looking at is letterboxing and really, really harsh closeups on actors’ faces. Jacques Jouffret is the cinematographer on this, and his career so far is entirely comprised of bad horror movies. No wonder he didn’t know what he was doing here.

Reid Miller, who plays Jadin is very good though. He manages to find genuine emotional truthfulness in a movie where it’s completely absent elsewhere. He’s absolutely giving this movie more than it deserves, Expect to see him more moving forward. Connie Britton plays Lola, Joe’s put-upon wife and Jadin’s mother, and she doesn’t get much to do. She asks Joe how he’s feeling a lot and she makes a lot of disappointed facial expressions. Gary Sinise also pops up as the last thing this movie needed – a kind hearted police officer! Vomit.

Queer critics love to talk about LGBT media made for straight audiences and while they’re wrong about a lot of it (Love, Simon, Happiest Season) Joe Bell absolutely feels like homework for guilty straight people. It’s begging you to have empathy for people who aren’t you, and while this is a good thing ultimately, there are plenty of ways to do this that would have been less cliched and more poignant. The end result feels very hackneyed and emotionally manipulative. Which is something I could forgive if the emotional manipulation worked. This should have been a very easy movie cry for me, and it didn’t even come close to working. I just kept rolling my eyes, rather than wiping tears from them. Joe Bell is shallow, mawkish and overly sentimental and rings false in every way.

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