Review: Joe Bell — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Joe Bell is a heartfelt true-life drama about a grieving father with an unusual — and ultimately tragic — response to his gay son’s suicide.

Scene from Joe Bell
Toronto International Film Festival

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Joe Bell

⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Rating: R

Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton, Gary Sinise

Writers: Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry

Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green

In Theaters

Reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival

Remember the ABC Movie of the Week? Every Thursday night in the late 1960s and early ’70s, a parade of Hollywood stars — mostly B-listers, but occasionally top names — would enact made-for-TV dramas that would occasionally tackle serious issues like racism, drug abuse, corruption, homophobia, and disease.

In that golden age of TV movies, Lucille Ball played a homeless woman. George Burns was a man with dementia. And most indelibly, James Caan brought the entire nation to tears as cancer-stricken football player Brian Piccolo in Brian’s Song. None of those films were particularly well-made, yet they were well-meaning, and for TV audiences that was more than enough.

Joe Bell, a heartfelt true-life drama about a grieving father with an unusual — and ultimately tragic — response to his gay son’s suicide, would have been a sensation on the small tube during the Nixon administration. While Joe Bell is far from artful, neither is it artless. Featuring a top-tier star (Mark Wahlberg) and a strikingly engaging newcomer (Reid Miller), the film sets its agenda in bold-faced, capital letters. The performances are as earnest as a Sunday school play. The direction by Reinaldo Marcus Green is, well, little more than direct.

I know Joe Bell’s heart is in the right place, but darned if I can find a pulse.

The film follows the true story of Bell, an Oregon dad whose son Jadin killed himself in 2013 — distraught over relentless bullying he endured because he was gay. Traumatized by the tragedy, Bell set out to walk across the country, stopping at schools along the way to speak out against not only bullying, but also against standing by and letting bullies have their way.

The script — by Brokeback Mountain Oscar winners Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry — imagines Joe setting out on his journey; a solitary, bearded man pushing a shopping cart along the gray ribbon of Northwest highways. But Joe is not really alone; he is accompanied by his late son, who badgers, teases, scolds, and commiserates with his dad during conversations that at times seem to stretch as long as the road itself.

The conversations-with-the-dead trope has served films and TV well from A Christmas Carol to The Kominsky Method, and I don’t really mind it here. For one thing, it provides a showcase for Miller, a wonderfully natural young actor who, at age 21 with more than 30 film and TV credits, can hardly be called a newcomer but who breaks through here with a performance of uncommon humanity.

Wahlberg plays Joe with the grim-faced stoicism you’d expect. The role calls for the kind of actor who can convey volumes through his eyes while maintaining an otherwise expressionless demeanor, and Wahlberg might not be that guy. But he does have undeniable star power, and at the moments when Joe allows himself to break through his strong, silent-type persona, Wahlberg proves to be quite affecting.

Gary Sinise makes a welcome appearance as a sympathetic cop, and in a relatively small role as Joe’s estranged wife, Connie Britton is touching as a parent who is forced to grieve the loss of her son virtually alone.

No way I’m going to come down hard on a film that has at its core themes of tolerance and the sometimes-messy nuances of parental love. Perhaps Joe Bell could have been a better movie, but it can’t be faulted for aiming low.

Featured image: Toronto International Film Festival

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