The opening credits of “Joe Bell” point out that the film is based on a true story, but it might be best to go into it not knowing too much about that story.
That’s not because the film from director Reinaldo Marcus Green (“Monsters and Men”) in any way betrays the real events, or even distorts them too much — on the whole, the drama written by Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry tries hard to do justice to Joe Bell, an Oregon man who in 2013 set out to walk across the United States to bring attention to bullying after his son, Jadin, was mercilessly mocked and bullied for being gay.
But “Joe Bell,” which premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival under the title “Good Joe Bell” but received a new edit before its July 2021 release from Roadside Attractions, takes some twists and turns along the way — and it contains a couple of significant surprises for viewers who come in without too much knowledge of the real events. Knowing where it’s going will have a real impact on how those revelations land, to the point where if you can go in fresh, you probably should.
(But afterward, you’ll probably want to learn more about the true events, which we won’t discuss in this review.)
An open-hearted, unapologetically emotional story of a man struggling to come to terms with what happened to his son and with his own complicity in it, “Joe Bell” makes good use of the Everyman appeal of Mark Wahlberg. It’s certainly not a landmark like “Brokeback Mountain,” Ossana and McMurtry’s previous film that dealt with gay issues in a Western setting was — and it won’t be mentioned alongside McMurtry’s “The Last Picture Show” and “Terms of Endearment,” either, though that trio of films sets a pretty high bar.
“Joe Bell,” by contrast, is earnest and passionate, sometimes awkward and overdone and sometimes quietly affecting. It’s a road trip based on a real-life story that doesn’t make for a tidy narrative, struggling to get where it wants to go but perhaps prompting a few tears along the way.
The film starts in Idaho, with Joe Bell trudging by the side of the road as semi-trucks barrel past. He’s on a quest to speak out against bullying anywhere he can find people who will listen, but the first talk we see him give is desultory and unconvincing. (In fact, we never really see him get any better at it.) Back on the road, he hears smack from Jadin, who is along on the walk to prod and needle his father and push him not to do the easy thing.
The film follows Joe on his walk but fills in the story with copious flashbacks, beginning with the time Jadin told his father about the bullying, but Joe just wanted his son to toughen up. “It’ll all work itself out,” he says, anxious to return to the new big-screen TV in the other room. “Are we done here now?”
Joe has come a good distance both physically and mentally from that moment, but guilt weighs him down as he makes his way through Utah and into Colorado, acquiring a measure of recognition along the way. When his wife and younger son (Connie Britton and Maxwell Jenkins) come to visit him, he blows up at them and she snaps back, “Keep walking and don’t come home until you figure out what you want to be. And I hope it’s not some Facebook celebrity who gets your picture taken with people.”
Walhberg is believable as a man trying to unlearn what were once his blunt, oafish responses to anything he didn’t want to face (though he seems to have accepted his son being gay, and even sings along with Jadin to Lady Gaga on the side of the road). And as Jadin, newcomer Reid Miller shines as a teen who wants to be out and unapologetic, but who’s forced to justify (or apologize for) his very existence just to get through the day.
The flashbacks get more brutal and more extended — the lengthy center section of the film is almost all flashback, with its urgent melodrama for the most part less convincing than the subtly changing interplay between Joe and Jadin. The spine of the film, which is Joe’s walk, is a largely solitary pursuit, and the real journey he must make is an internal one — but in order for us to follow his progress, Joe needs to have moments where he talks to other people about what he’s going through, whether it’s a roadside conversation or a voicemail home. Some of these conversations make their points subtly enough, but others spell everything out in a way that feels a little too on-the-nose — and the film also turns, with diminishing returns, to a series of montages set mostly to gentle acoustic ballads that are asked to do too much emotional heavy lifting.
Gary Sinise, though, grounds the final stretch of the film with a quiet, understated performance as a sheriff that Joe encounters in Colorado; some of his and Walhberg’s moments together are as emotional and as affecting as anything in the film.
There are shocks along the way, handled gently or dropped as a gut punch. Green handles the difficult twists as artfully as he can, but the real story doesn’t work very well with the film’s yearning to find a measure of acceptance and redemption. It’s a frustrating journey that will tug at the heartstrings without ever becoming fully satisfying.
NOTE: This review has been updated since its initial publication to reflect the new, re-edited and retitled version of the film.