Joe Bell is a heartbreaking film about repentance stemming from unapologetic intolerance.
This review of Joe Bell is spoiler-free.
The story of Jadin Bell is a heartbreaking one. The story of his father is an act of sincere repentance. I’m sure Joe Bell would have met some scrutiny in this age of cancel culture when he began his trek. It was on foot, mind you, to promote unnecessary oppression of his son, who is gay. Jadin accompanies him as they begin to walk from La Grande, Oregon, all the way to New York as they begin to get to know each other better. Perhaps, for the first time.
Joe (played by Mark Whalberg) is salt of the earth and was raised a strict Christian. He knows Jadin (You‘s Reid Miller, remarkable here) is gay, even when his son breaks the news to him. He accepts him on his own but doesn’t want to acknowledge it openly. His son’s friends are all girls. Mostly from the cheer squad he is on. He is relentlessly harassed for his sexual orientation. Joe, though, thinks he needs to stand up for himself. Oh, and make sure you practice your cheerleading in the backyard where no one can see you.
The reason for Joe and Jadin’s trek isn’t exactly clear at first, but it does a wonderful job toggling between their current walkabout to Jadin’s issues living his life truthfully and without shame. You wouldn’t expect much less with a script from Diana Ossana and the legendary Larry McMurtry. They are frequent collaborators and won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Brokeback Mountain. Like that film, they pack the storylines with visceral moments that will make the viewer angry or maybe even explore those who have an intolerance for someone’s sexual orientation that is different from their own.
The script and all the performances around Jadin are unapologetic, which is not by mistake. Joe has the attitude that his tolerance is better than most and especially in their Bible-thumping community. His mother (Connie Britton) loves her son dearly and accepts him more than anyone. She, though, is a product of her environment as a subordinate housewife. There will be no scene where she changes her husband’s mind.
It’s practically the same outlook Jadin’s school has. When he reports heinous bullying against him, the principal thinks this will provoke things and he should just let it be. When the school official thinks Jadin receives counseling, his response is an astute one. “I don’t need counseling. They do.” It’s a wonderful performance by Miller. His pained expression emotes a sense of torment; someone that has reached their breaking point. It’s heartbreaking.
If you know the story — I recommend looking it up after if you don’t — the film’s plot is obvious. This has resulted in an argument that Reinaldo Marcus Green’s (Monsters and Men) film is formulaic, completely untrue. The film admirably pulls the ripcord on a subplot that is unexpected and effective. The ending is tragic on two counts, but that doesn’t make it a formula picture because it’s based on a true story. It’s a quietly effective film that many are faulting for looking at events through the senior Bell’s eyes.
Even if many feel the subject matter should be solely based on Jadin’s view, which is a fair point, they are missing the reason for the story. For one, it’s a memory play. The second is that so many of us walk through life never changing our ways. The script gives an equal treatment of both lives being lived before and after seminal events that changed an outlook. The tagline is a story of redemption. It’s not really. Joe Bell is not asking for your forgiveness. He is offering repentance for his sins and showing you the error of our ways.