Towards the end of Good Joe Bell, Mark Wahlberg’s titular character takes a load off his feet from his cross-country walk to condemn homophobic bullying. He sits down at a police station underneath pictures of Barack Obama and Joe Biden hanging on the wall. This bit of art direction reveals what should have been obvious from the film’s overall comportment: this is a period piece.
America at large has experienced a dramatic shift in public attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community even since the Obama era. (Heck, during Joe Bell’s walk in 2013, the Supreme Court declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional!) While homophobia remains a present threat, particularly among young people in schools, to act like there’s not significant awareness of the issue is just at odds with reality. People largely know the bullying of gay youth is a problem. And, to be clear, even a single instance of it occurring is a stain on society. But the persistence of the threat exists not out of ignorance but out of malevolence and immaturity.
In 2020, there’s simply no need to need to waste time fixating so obsessively on the trauma faced by LGBTQ+ kids. It’s not necessary to prove the existence of the issue nor to validate the struggles they must endure simply for being who they are. The time would be better spent further exploring the personality and humanity of Joe’s gay son Jadin (Reid Miller) rather than defining him so much by the abuse that other people foist onto him. Thankfully, the film does allow for a few moments of joy to break through for Jadin. Yet it’s not enough to save his story from such unfortunately rote familiarity.
Jadin is not necessarily the sole focus of Good Joe Bell, which makes the film both more interesting and also messier. Reinaldo Marcus Green’s sophomore feature is more than the “It Gets Better” PSA that it initially appears to resemble. There’s cleverness in the concept for those willing to wait for some of the reveals in Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana’s script. But crafty plot maneuvers cannot fully rescue a film still struggling with larger unresolved issues. At its core, this is a work that does not know what – and who – it’s about.
In fairness, these are questions Joe himself must contemplate on his long ambulatory journey for tolerance of LGBTQ+ youth. Is he walking to avoid his guilt or process it? Is he taking such drastic action for the benefit of Jadin or himself? Are there limits to what and who he can forgive? A film that unreservedly placed his conflicted psyche at the center might have resulted in something for Wahlberg similar to what Reese Witherspoon’s character achieved along her introspective hike in Wild. But these tensions are mostly just fodder for dialogue with his skeptical wife Lola (Connie Britton), not anything that provides actual friction for the narrative. Good Joe Bell is not really interested in unpacking or exploring the issues it raises for the central character.
The film’s use of a flashback structure is necessary to help establish why Joe sets off on his trek with little more than a pushcart of necessities and a garbled stump speech pleading for acceptance. (This is to say nothing of the bizarrely garbled accent with which Wahlberg delivers the cookie-cutter address.) But McMurtry and Ossana never quite figure out how to move between the two periods in Joe’s life with any agility, resulting in a whiplash-inducing watch. Though Good Joe Bell covers a lot of ground, it skimps on what feels like the necessary connective tissue between its two timelines.
Chiefly, the film never provides a satisfying answer to how Joe makes the leap from passively accepting parent to ardent activist. This is a particular disappointment because Green’s last feature, 2018’s Monsters and Men, was at its best when exploring how movements for social justice can galvanize the apathetic. Green’s humanistic stamp is evident when Wahlberg expresses a soulful sentiment or denunciation of narrow-minded thinking, yet there’s little for any director to do when faced with such an untidy script.
If there’s any saving grace to this letdown, it’s that Wahlberg – action star, Instagram influencer, proud Christian, family man, businessman – can help elevate the message of Good Joe Bell to an audience that might not otherwise hear it. As Jadin reminds Joe early in the film, the people who really need to hear his gospel of tolerance are not the self-selecting crowds gathered in bingo halls and high school gymnasiums. For things to change, the people he needs to reach are those like the gruff diner patrons they encounter who feel comfortable openly spewing homophobic hatred.
The character Joe Bell might falter a bit at preaching to the converted within the context of the film. But perhaps the film Good Joe Bell can avoid that misstep by speaking to people who might otherwise not be exposed to these lessons through a messenger they trust and respect. An imperfect ally is still an ally, after all.
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