Mark Wahlberg (Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon, Patriots Day) is back at it as yet another flawed, working-class hero type based on a real guy. This time around, he’s Joe Bell, an Oregon dad who quit his job to walk across the country in search of redemption after his 15-year-old gay son Jadin killed himself in response to intense bullying at school. Joe decides to pay tribute to his son by walking to New York City where Jaden had hoped to live one day. Along the way, he speaks in schools, churches, bars–wherever he can get an audience– about the very real dangers and consequences of bullying. And he reflects on his own missed opportunities to connect and protect.

As Joe ambles from town to town, he’s guided by Jadin’s presence. Sometimes it feels gimmicky, and other times genuine and heartfelt. The narrative device allows for flashbacks into the family’s complicated dynamic; Joe can be loving and supportive, passive aggressive and prone to outbursts with his wife Lola (Connie Britton, “Nashville”, “Friday Night Lights”) and their kids.

Joe Bell is a well-meaning yet superficial film that hopes to be awards-worthy yet struggles to make an impact. Strong individual performances from Wahlberg, Britton, Reid Miller as Jadin, and Gary Sinise in a brief appearance as a Colorado sheriff who bonds with Joe over having gay sons – can’t make up for characters that aren’t fully drawn. It’s a rather surprising defect considering the screenplay was penned by the writing duo behind Brokeback Mountain.

The film premiered with a slightly different title – Good Joe Bell – at the Toronto International Film Festival and was re-cut and renamed after receiving a lukewarm reception at TIFF. I’d be curious to see how the two versions compare, and whether there might have been a way to pack a more powerful punch given the authenticity of the raw material. And the family’s dual tragedies.

Joe Bell’s mission – and his pushcart of bare necessities – captured local and national media attention in 2013. Six months into his journey, he was hit and killed by a truck while walking down a Colorado highway. The truck driver likely fell asleep at the wheel.

Perhaps that’s why Joe Bell the movie never quite makes it to the next level. His story – like that of his son – was cut tragically short.

Despite its shortcomings, Joe Bell delivers an affecting story with an important anti-bullying message. And it’s a very soft ‘R’, suitable for teens.

Joe Bell opens exclusively in theaters on July 23.


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