Review: Grieving father hits the road in conflicted 'Joe Bell'

Mark Wahlberg is miscast in drama that struggles to find its footing.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

In "Joe Bell," Mark Wahlberg plays Joe Bell, a man coming to grips with his son coming out as gay. And the same way Joe is not sure how to process this information, the movie isn't sure how to distill the story it's aiming to tell. 

Joe's son, Jadin (the impressive Reid Miller), is bullied at school and can't wait to leave his hometown of Le Grande, Oregon, for the more accepting, more progressive streets of New York City. At home, Joe struggles to fully embrace and accept his son. When Jadin comes out to him, Joe — a scruffy, hot-headed "man's man" — offers a generic platitude and goes back to watching TV. When Jadin joins his school's cheerleading squad and practices in the front yard, Joe asks him to please move it to the backyard, where not as many people can see. 

Reid Miller and Mark Wahlberg in "Joe Bell."

After Jadin takes his own life, hanging himself on the swingset of a playground, Joe is so racked with guilt that he decides to stage a cross-country walk in honor of his son, speaking at schools along the way about the realities of bullying. 

The walk is his penance, and it frames the story. But writers Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, Oscar winners for their "Brokeback Mountain" script, gimmick the story up by having Jadin and Joe walking together, singing "Born This Way" by Lady Gaga together on an open two-lane highway, not revealing Jadin's death until the midpoint of the film and using it as an unnecessary storytelling gotcha.

And there are questions of Joe's motivation, which are raised by his wife, Lola (Connie Britton): is he really walking for Jadin, or is he doing it for his rising stature on social media? The question is posed but never fully addressed, as Joe's inward struggles aren't clear in Wahlberg's surface-level performance. 

Wahlberg, ultimately, seems like the wrong guy to play Joe, or it could be that the journey his character is on is cut short before a real change in him can occur. (The lack of resolution is another flaw in the story being told.) "Joe Bell" is based on a true story, and is a well-intentioned tale about the need for acceptance and tolerance. If only its execution was as clear as its message.


'Joe Bell'


Rated R: for language including offensive slurs, some disturbing material, and teen partying

Running time: 93 minutes

In theaters