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Across Mark Wahlberg’s New Oregon-Set Docudrama, “Joe Bell” Tolls for Thee

Wahlberg plays Joe as the sort of fiercely self-reliant American whose guiding philosophy fundamentally demands all problems can be solved.

We’re first introduced to Joe Bell (Mark Wahlberg) and his teenage son Jadin (Reid Miller) walking on opposite sides of a bustling rural highway—dad following the flow of traffic, his boy nimbly keeping pace while mocking throughout, bewildered motorists hurtling uncomfortably close to both.

As Joe doggedly tromps along in grubby denim, the freshly laundered Jadin’s mix of wry patience and genuine concern neatly inverts the old gag about running away from home under parental supervision. However odd the scenario, the pair work well together and banter with a time-worn natural rapport that smooths over more pressing questions about what exactly this march across America hopes to accomplish.

At their next stop, after Joe is ushered inside an emptyish gym and handed the mic to present an oratory abysmal even by the standards of high school assemblies, we don’t ask who on earth thought he should deliver the keynote address on sensitivity. We wonder instead why Jadin doesn’t join his dad on stage to coax a more graceful performance since the cautionary tale of bullying seems clearly based on Jadin’s own story.

At that point, the depths of Joe’s pain become evident as his boy watches from a sad remove. Anyone familiar with the real events informing this film—or anybody who’s watched enough American movies to know something’s up when a charismatic figure is utterly ignored by everyone but his co-star—will face two heartrending revelations. Jadin is actually dead, and this story is no longer about him.

Oregonians may be more likely to remember what happened to La Grande’s Joe and Jadin Bell, but we’ll wager just about everyone buying a ticket will know the 15-year-old boy took his own life in 2013 following prolonged anti-gay harassment by other students that was tacitly permitted by school administrators citing community standards. To honor his son, Joe embarked on a cross-country journey on foot.

Two years later, Brokeback Mountain team Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry wrote a screenplay centered on Joe Bell’s solo anti-hazing crusade. Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men, King Richard) was brought on board to direct. Shortly after premiering at last summer’s Toronto International Film Festival to mixed reviews, the film was purchased by Solstice Studios under its original title Good Joe Bell.

When pandemic-related uncertainties indefinitely postponed the release date, indie distributor Roadside Attractions picked up the property, dropped in an Oscar-baiting Diane Warren ballad over the end credits and shortened the name by a third, which perhaps unfairly emphasizes the movie’s central issue. Is Joe Bell, y’know, good?

Wahlberg certainly seems to think so. Decades after turning down a Brokeback part for reasons veering homophobic, the action hero and everyman avatar throws himself into the eponymous role with a desperate restlessness. Even during happier times with family intact and the big game on the new flat-screen, Bell never quite relaxes—a coiled panther on the La-Z-Boy—and, as life on the road takes its toll, he seethes and snaps and bristles with a crackling volatility. It’s a compelling performance that truly shines when paired with Miller’s own high-wattage incandescence.

The first half of the picture essentially plays out as a road trip of mismatched archetypes loping through Big Sky country. Juxtaposing close-in footage of their electrified banter with lonesome highways wending through widescreen shots, the deepening father-son bond leads to a surprisingly joyous appreciation of one another as utterly different people.

Of course, as an impromptu a capella Lady Gaga duet and dance routine helps remind, the entirety of their shared trek reflects only the desperate fantasies of a father ravaged by guilt, but burrowing into the successively sadder details surrounding his son’s suicide hardly reveals some greater truth. Upon acknowledging the death once an insistent Dolly Parton impersonator forces the issue, Jadin the ghostly sidekick gives way to memories of the actual teen through flashbacks staged with the suffocating tension of horror movies. Shadows loom. Bottles break just offscreen. Every window has blinds and someone usually peeks through. Miller, once again, dazzles, but there’s a deadening effect to replicating so many finely etched details for such negligible purpose. Peeling back the tenderest layers of a battered young psyche can feel like its own sort of emotional bullying.

In the end, whether it was martyrdom or a brand-building venture, it doesn’t much matter if Bell’s road was paved with good intentions. Wahlberg plays Joe as the sort of fiercely self-reliant American whose guiding philosophy fundamentally demands all problems can be solved. With neither the powers nor temperament to enact systemic change, what else could he do but trudge across flyover country and share the depths of his torment with everyone he sees? For his wife (Connie Britton’s weathered reduction of her iconic Friday Night Lights matriarch), the mathematics of honoring a dead son by effectively abandoning living family members doesn’t add up, but she implicitly understands that Joe’s departure was no more a choice than Jadin’s sexuality. Each was born that way.

SEE IT: Joe Bell opened widely on July 23.