“Joe Bell”: a compelling journey

Film explores the bond between an ‘everyman’ dad and his gay son

PHOTO/ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS: Reid Miller, as Jadin Bell, and Mark Wahlberg as Joe Bell in "Joe Bell," mow playing in Reno.

Days after seeing “Joe Bell, I am still pondering this amazing film. It’s a movie with such intense, thoughtful acting, such compelling yet tragic characters and such a thought-provoking story that I just cannot shake it.

It is the story of a loving father, title character Joe Bell (MarkWahlberg), who without a playbook tries to support his son, Jadin (Reid Miller), who gay, bullied by his peers, and who eventually commits suicide. It’s based on the real-life Joe Bell, who, on a mission to educate people about bullying and acceptance, honored Jadin by embarking on a coast-to-coast walk.

Screenwriters Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana, who also wrote, “Brokeback Mountain,” have their fingers on the pulse of the agony that can result from uncontrolled bad values — elevating our children for physical prowess and conventional beauty, while minimizing those who are beautiful in a different way.

VIIDE/ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS: The official “Joe Bell” trailer.

A clash of values

Any parent will identify with the pressure of bad values and the pain it causes for their teenage children regardless of their child’s sexual orientation. Perhaps, as the real Joe Bell hoped, Jaidin Bell’s death will help relieve some of that social pressure and bullying. It’s not just a sexual orientation phenomenon. Teenagers are bullied for reading too much, wearing different clothing, even thinking differently than the majority of their peers. In Jadin’s case, his rage was turned inward and ended his life.

His death followed a brutal attack in the boy’s locker room at school, a failed first love and his overwhelming sense of isolation.

Joe’s walk begins after Jadin’s death in Oregon and he is bound for New York.  That’s because  Jadin had mentioned New York City as the Mecca for gay men and wished he could live there.  The beauty of this movie is that, Joe, who is initially driven by grief, finds a way to honor his son and to try to prevent other families from experiencing his (and Jadin’s) torment.

Walking across the continent

Joe speaks to school kids in packed gymnasiums to small gatherings of just a few people. He’s not alone on his trek (Spoiler Alert); his son’s spirit, visible only in Joe’s mind (and to the audience) accompanies him. The two sleep along the side of the road in tents; they discuss the things they weren’t able to when Jadin was among the living

Wahlberg as Joe is at the top of his game as an actor. He relates to the other cast members with an immediate, in-the-moment performance. He delivers transitions from anger, to remorse, then grief, with such seamless reality that many viewers’ hearts will break.  

Reid Milleras Jadin Bell,holds his own with Wahlberg, the veteran actor. Although his emotional range and reality keep up his performance, he is physically slightly over the top, often flailing his arms. That’s common in young actors. Acting teacher Lee Strasberg made his students put their hands in their pockets so they would have to use real emotion to express what they were feeling.

The father and son relationship is at the core of the film. The supporting cast is terrific, but those characters are primarily on screen to develop the story line and context. The film is grounded in reality. The only time I became aware I was watching a movie was in a scene between Wahlberg and Gary Sinise.

Sinise plays a police officer who tells Joe about his own gay son. Sinise is reciting dialogue while Wahlberg is operating from a deep emotion and then delivering his lines. The lack of thought on Sinise’s part almost ruins a delicate scene involving Bell’s absolution.

PHOTO/ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS: Reid Miller and Mark Wahlberg on the road in “Joe Bell.”

Emotions on screen

The tight close-up facial shooting is reminiscent of the techniques of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and cinematographer Sven Vilhem Nykvist . One false move or emotion and the camera (and the audience) will know it. Sinise fails the test, but Wahlberg’s true from- the-heart acting makes the grade.

This film should garner some major awards for Wahlberg, who delivers realistic, everyman performances with ease. He was nominated, but did not win, an Academy Award for his brilliant performance in, Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.”

Wahlberg also co-produced this film. I applaud him for delivering a brutal, thoughtful experience which has the power to change any viewer for the better along the way

“Joe Bell” is a movie for everyone. It gives us all permission to be human, but then to try to do better. Wahlberg elevates an ordinary father to heroic status. The film is a type of legacy for the real Joe and Jadin Bell. It’s playing at the Century Park Lane and the Century Summit Sierra in Reno.

Do not miss it.

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