“Joe Bell” isn’t pretty. It isn’t sweet and sappy. And it doesn’t have a happy ending. But what it has is heart and soul with an important message for all who are willing to hear it making it a must-see movie. Starring Mark Wahlberg as Joe Bell, a father who is making a trek from his small town of La Grande, OR to NYC on foot, and based on a true story, the film captures one man’s literal and figurative journey to recognize the part he played in the death of his son.
Bell’s son Jadin committed suicide after years of verbal, mental, and physical abuse in all forms at his school. Reaching out for help and not receiving it, Jadin felt that even he couldn’t accept himself because he was different…he was gay. It’s a heartbreaking portrayal that writers Diana Ossana and Larry McMurty convey eloquently using flashbacks in both Bell and Jayden’s life. We get a glimpse into what Jayden experienced, from physical assaults at school, a dismissive educational administration, to the even more devastating neglect and non-verbal messages from Bell himself. This allows us to experience through Jadin’s eyes how bullying can feel like an emotional onslaught with no escape. We are also privy to the raw and honest look back at the part that Bell played in Jadin’s sense of self worth.
The entire Bell family must not only cope with Jadin’s death, but also Joe’s behavior before and after the event. He’s a flawed man–a real man–and Wahlberg’s portrayal of him isn’t a glossy form of the character, but a gritty one. We all know a Joe Bell. We may even live next door to one or even with one. It’s this level of realism that gives the story more credibility as it delves into Bell’s marriage to Lola (Connie Britton), his relationship with son Joseph (Maxwell Jenkins) and the emotional armor he has built brick by brick. The very foundation of this shield must come down and we gradually see it happen, changing Bell from the inside out.
Of course, with these flashbacks we get to see the struggles Jaden experiences and Reid Miller’s fine-tuned performance allows us to walk in his shoes. From the outside looking in, the mere concept of bullying is unfathomable, but there’s not one person out there that hasn’t been a part of this on one side of the fence or the other. Miller’s “Jadin” is as equally a credible character as Wahlberg’s Bell. And together, in spirit embodied, we watch their understanding of one another grow. Yes, it’s too late in many ways, but for Bell, perhaps change and growth can happen.
While the message is clear, the story is more about the transformation of Bell which, in turn, makes us, the viewer, look into our own actions and behaviors. This is the key to the story. Looking at our own actions and reactions and perhaps changing toward a more positive and supportive one is the more important message because our children learn from us. With powerful performances, particularly Wahlberg and Miller, this story lingers with you long after the credits roll.