Good Joe Bell deals with the subject of bullying and homophobia. The based on a true story father-son drama has some problems depicting the psychological trauma of getting bullied for being yourself and not having the support system necessary to get through the constant fear and intimidation. The reason for that is just like the protagonist of the film himself says: “I just made Jadin’s being gay all about Joe Bell“.

Written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana (Brokeback Mountain) the film begins with Jadin (Reid Miller – ‘Play By Play‘), a high school student trying to talks to his father about being bullied at school. When he also decides to come out to his father, Joe (Mark Wahlberg – ‘Spenser Confidential‘), the parent fails to give his full attention, while shouting at him to stand up against those bullies. Later, Jadin can overhear a conversation between his father and a friend, on how his sexual orientation is probably just “a phase”. Joe tries to “tolerate” his son, but instead comes across ignorant and somewhat homophobic. The merciless bullying at school and visible embarrassment at home from his father, reaches a boiling point, pushing Jadin to take desperate measures..

With a star-studded cast that includes Mark Wahlberg, Connie Britton (‘Dirty John‘), and Gary Sinise (‘13 Reasons Why‘), it’s young actor Reid Miller who’s the real star in a truly heartbreaking performance. Joe, broken by regret, sets out on a mission in which he will walk across the USA, speaking to anyone who will listen about the dangers of bullying. This journey shifts between Joe’s cross-country trek and scenes that show flashes of who Jadin was and what he had to go through on a daily basis.

Wahlberg is the lead, but shouldn’t be. The film focuses too heavily on his character but doesn’t do a well enough job to establish any kind of sympathy we should have for him. How hard he tries his best to look defeated, his performance doesn’t even come near his best work. Joe is flawed, he wants to do better, and that’s admirable, but Good Joe Bell basically sidelines Jadin’s story, turning it too much into a redemption tale to make right of what’s long gone. Reid, who’s criminally underused, does a spectacular job at channeling Jadin’s fear and loneliness. It’s really a shame we don’t get more time with him, which would’ve helped in feeling the impact of his character’s emotional dismantling. Britton is fine as usual and gets to shine in one particular scene that’ll send shivers up and down your spine. Despite these actors’ best efforts, the family comes across more like shallow puddles of water, than deep undiscovered trenches. That’s partially because the script just keeps it all on the surface.

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green has the right intentions, but takes away the backbone of what could have been an emotionally draining story. There’s just one too many clichés being used, to prove the viewer Jadin’s a stereotypical gay teenager. This “hetero gaze” on homosexuality is clearly still something we have to work on in Hollywood. The problem I have with the film, is that there’s so much potential, but it’s not executed right and fails to connect.

Even though the scenery is absolutely breathtaking when shown from a bird’s point of view, everything that happens on the ground looks generic. The country music is an expected choice, while the score doesn’t always fit with what’s taking place on screen. It’s quite surprising Green chose a project like this after the talent he displayed with his excellent debut effort, Monsters and Men. Most scenes at school needed to have a more realistic tone to convey what Jiden was experiencing. Instead, like most of the film, it all feels like Green’s playing too much by the rules.

It’s nice to see more attention for LGBTQIA+ stories in Hollywood, but it seems there’s still a lack of aforementioned talent in front and behind the camera to give those stories a more authentic voice. Good Joe Bell does a careful effort at exposing the ongoing problems of bullying and homophobia, yet chooses to focus more on the self-reflection and guilt, when nothing was done to prevent the heartache to start with. A rather disappointing take, which would’ve worked better in the hands of someone more in touch with this very important yet sensitive matter.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Good Joe Bell is screening at TIFF20:
– Friday, September 18 at 6pm (online)
– Saturday, September 19 at 8pm @ TIFF Bell Lightbox
Tickets are available HERE

TIFF20 Review – ‘Good Joe Bell’

Reviewed online (as part of Toronto International Film Festival), September 15, 2020. Rating: TBC. Running time: 90 min.

PRODUCTION: An Argent Pictures, Endeavor Content, Hercules Films Ltd., Nine Stories Productions, Parliament of Owls, Rhea Films, Stay Gold Features, Stay Gold, VisionChaos Productions, Visions of Chaos production. Producers: Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Riva Marker, Eva Maria Daniels, Cary Fukunaga, Ryan Ahrens, Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson. Executive producers: Jill Ahrens, Ben Renzo, Derrick Brooks, Paris Kassidokostas-Latsis, Terry Dougas, Jean-Luc De Fanti, Jake Gyllenhaal, Diana Ossana, Larry McMurtry, Peter Pastorelli, Uwe R. Feuersenger.

CREW: Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green. Screenplay: Diana Ossana, Larry McMurtry. Editor: Mark Sanger. Cinematography: Jacques Jouffret. Music: Antonio Pinto.

WITH: Mark Wahlberg, Connie Britton, Gary Sinise, Reid Miller, Morgan Lily, Maxwell Jenkins.

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