Content warning: suicide
There’s a subset of queer cinema that, one turn down Amazon Prime, becomes nearly ubiquitous. The films in this category can broadly go unwatched; any trailer filled with lugubrious and teary music and melodramatic damnation encompass most of these films. They probe homophobia, unfailingly enduring age-old trauma, and we, in turn, endure age-old plots and archetypes.
These films are all, however, more potent than “Joe Bell,” despite the zenith of the subset — “Brokeback Mountain” — sharing its Oscar-winning writers (Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry) with the film. The pair’s latest, and possibly their last, is a hop, skip and ocean-wide jump from the 2005 script. For one, it won’t be winning any Oscars. Still more, there’s no boldness here — nothing daring enough to spark controversy akin to what “Brokeback Mountain” inspired. Where “Brokeback Mountain” remained sensitive of itself and its characters, “Joe Bell” wields a sledgehammer, sacrificing a nuanced, accurate portrayal of its real subjects in favor of an uncomplicated redemption arc.
The film is about the true story of father-and-son Joe and Jadin Bell, the latter an Oregon teen who committed suicide after enduring abject bullying for being gay. You won’t hear the word “gay” often in “Joe Bell,” though — the titular character (Mark Wahlberg) is a gruff conservative father of two living his dream in rural America, which he seems to believe is shattered when his eldest son (Reid Miller) comes out. Ossana and McMurtry make Joe an unlikeable fellow, which, given the amount of screentime Wahlberg is (irresponsibly) given, turns out to be a mistake.
After Jadin’s death, Joe begins a walk for change from Oregon to New York, stopping in towns along the way to preach his message of acceptance. New York City was Jadin’s dream home, as we’re reminded just about every other time he appears on screen, either in flashbacks or as Joe’s angel-on-the-shoulder conscience, a tired tool ravenously exploited.
A few other trivia about the version of Jadin shared in “Joe Bell”: He’s a cheerleader. He dates a football jock, under the radar. He blasts “Born This Way” too loud — but who hasn’t? That’s the issue here. Jadin is reduced to a “yasss, queen” stereotype.
Among the sides of Jadin we aren’t introduced to: He frequented an assisted living home for the elderly. That would’ve been nice to see in the film, in place of overwhelming misery and depression. As things go on, it becomes ever clearer that “Joe Bell” is seldom about Jadin, and mostly about Joe. This is a well-mannered, good-natured film, but it’s careless, and you begin to question its transparency. Character development, after all, is reserved for Wahlberg’s Joe and his mission of redemption; the frames are structured to provide Wahlberg with a star turn, not to tell the story of the real people the film portrays.
Wahlberg plays Joe with the usual brute force, a force not worth reckoning with. The burdensome physicality of Wahlberg’s performances has been a hallmark since he went by Marky Mark, and he’s been rescued time and again by actors out of his league. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s turn in “Boogie Nights” comes to mind, in which one small scene conveys more empathy toward gay men than this film and Wahlberg’s performance(s) ever will. Wahlberg’s best hope in “Joe Bell,” Connie Britton as his wife Lola, doesn’t get enough rope to pull him off the cliff.
“Joe Bell” is so ubiquitous in its assertions, it threatens to lose sight of its conflict altogether. It’s an imprecise catch-all, hesitating for so long to specifically call out Joe that the embarrassment and shame he trafficks in sinks the already fragile film.
The film’s Joe is the type who accepts his son so long as he ignores what he does in private. That changes after Jadin’s death, but the filmmakers, like Joe, have already stepped on a few thorns. “Joe Bell,” fresh out of imagination, doesn’t know how to carve ahead. No good options here and none for us, either. Let’s hope the film doesn’t get any more attention than it deserves.