One of the queerest summers in recent cinema history gets even gayer with “Joe Bell” (Roadside Attractions) from the Oscar-winning screenwriting team behind “Brokeback Mountain” – Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry.
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and based on a true story, “Joe Bell” is a literal road movie, as well as one about the personal road the title character travels to come to terms with grief and loss.
It’s not giving anything away to say that Joe (Mark Wahlberg, delivering his most watchable performance since 2011’s “The Fighter”) was the father of Jadin (played by scene-stealer Reid Miller in a breakout role), a gay teenager who was bullied relentlessly in close-minded, small-town LaGrande, Oregon. The result was that Jadin killed himself in 2013. After a struggle with depression, Joe decides he’s going to walk from Oregon to New York City (a place that Jadin as a young gay man dreamed of relocating to for obvious reasons).
Moving clumsily back and forth in time between Joe’s ambitious odyssey and flashbacks to the period before Jadin’s suicide, the movie begins as Joe is going to be speaking at a high school in Idaho about bullying, intolerance, and the deadly effects they have on people. It’s obvious that this is not Joe’s forte, but he is so determined to get his message across that there’s something profoundly moving about it.
The first in the series of flashbacks involve Jadin’s coming out to Joe (he’d already told his mother Lola portrayed by Connie Britton), not only about being gay, but also the brutal bullying he’s experiencing at school. Joe does his best to be supportive, but only makes matters worse. Despite making an effort, there is much he doesn’t understand about Jadin, including his being the only male on the cheer squad.
The depictions of Jadin’s life are raw and difficult to watch. The jocks at his school make his life miserable. They send him homophobic DMs. They put a snake in his locker. They physically and verbally abuse him. This, in spite of the fact that Jadin begins a secret relationship with football player Chance (Igby Rigney).
For much of the time Joe spends on his trek through Idaho and Utah, he is “accompanied” by Jadin. It’s a kind of grief therapy for Joe. They talk, share their feelings, even get playful with each other (the “Born This Way” scene is priceless). The fact of Jadin’s death is revealed following a poignant sequence in a Salt Lake City gay bar.
“Joe Bell” contains some powerful and challenging moments, including Jadin’s suicide, as well as Joe’s interactions with Ben (Gary Sinise), a Colorado sheriff with a gay son. Wahlberg and Britton give strong performances. However, the whole movie belongs to Miller. His nuanced portrayal of Jadin comes across as genuine and heartfelt, a tribute crossed with a tragedy. Ultimately, the formulaic and manipulative nature of the production winds up taking the movie down a few notches.
Screen Savor is a weekly column from SFGN’s film critic Gregg Shapiro. Shapiro is an entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in regional LGBT and mainstream media outlets. Shapiro is the author of seven books including the 2019 chapbooks, Sunshine State and More Poems About Buildings and Food. Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.