The Reel Review
Mark Wahlberg stars in this biopic about Joe Bell, the Oregon man who began a solo trek across America in 2013 to educate people about the tragic effects of bullying. He embarked on his journey shortly after his bullied gay teenage son Jadin killed himself.
Featuring flashbacks of the horrendous bullying his son Jadin endured, Joe Bell’s journey also has him interacting with an imaginary Jadin, in a manner reminiscent of The Sixth Sense. The film is a well-intentioned redemption story, presumably showing us missed conversations they may have had if Jadin was still alive.
There are some powerful, gut wrenching moments that make Joe Bell worth seeing. Reid Miller is the film’s standout as Jadin – he will break your heart and make you cry. The bullying is particularly tough to watch, made even more impactful by Jadin’s tearful frustration towards his parents and feckless school administrators who failed to protect him.
Wahlberg’s Joe Bell, for the most part, is a pretty abrasive, unlikable character. And despite more subtle performances from Connie Britton as the wife and mother and Gary Sinise as a sheriff whom Bell befriends, those characters lack the emotional heft needed for such a compelling subject. More Jadin and less Joe would have helped. There are other films (Palmer, Moonlight, Boys Don’t Cry) that have addressed the bullying of gay young people with way more conviction, making this an adequate but missed opportunity.
• Joe Bell is the final screenplay from Oscar-winner Larry McMurtry (Brokeback Mountain), who died of heart failure in March 2021 at the age of 84. His writing credits included Lonesome Dove and Terms of Endearment.
• Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Reid Miller spent much of his early years living in small towns. Joe Bell is his big breakout role, after a number of TV series appearances and indie film roles.
• Joe Bell’s Facebook page, Joe’s Walk for Change, continues to raise money and awareness to combat bullying and teen suicide.