Bullying is defined as unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Forty to fifty years ago, it was considered normal and "character building". Even today, with zero-tolerance policies in schools, some still believe a little bullying is good.
However, in the last ten to fifteen years, there has been a push towards ending bullying especially against targeted populations (LGBTQ, various ethnic groups, those with disabilities, etc.) Unfortunately, it seems there will always be bullies preying on those that are weaker than them. Based on a true story, Joe Bell shows the devasting toll bullying can take on an individual and the lasting effects it has on the family and friends who surround that person.
Jadin Bell (Reid Miller; Play by Play) is a high school student who is constantly tormented and bullied after coming out as gay and joining the cheerleading squad. After years of enduring harassment, Jadin can't take it anymore and his father, Joe (Mark Wahlberg; Ted) decides to walk cross country from La Grande, Oregon to New York City to raise awareness of ongoing bullying and how it affects a person.
Along the way, Joe speaks to people at town hall meetings, school assemblies, etc. while he and Jadin make this trek. Sleeping in tents and the occasional motel, Joe is grateful for the kindness of strangers who give him food and supplies and to the land he traverses to occasionally offer up a bounty, so he doesn't starve to death. Back at home, Joe's wife, Lola (Connie Britton; Nashville), and their other son, Joseph (Maxwell Jenkins; Lost in Space) patiently wait at home for his return (but occasionally meeting him for a night). Throughout his journey, Joe obtains a better understanding of how he failed Jadin and what he can do differently.
Wahlberg has had some strong characters in the past but, unfortunately, this isn't one of them. First, if you look at pictures of the real Joe Bell online, he was put together with little to no facial hair, a short haircut, and clean clothing, whereas, Wahlberg looks disheveled, unkempt, and unwashed. He also doesn't offer the depth of emotion that another actor might have had playing this part. This is not his best role, and he doesn't do an already troublesome film any justice. Punctuating this fact is the ten or so minutes that Gary Sinise (Forrest Gump) is on-screen with Wahlberg. The contrast between their acting is immense and one immediately becomes focused on Sinise instead of Wahlberg.
Britton is great as Joe's wife. She tries to be supportive of her sons and her husband while she is dealing with her own feelings and issues. Jenkins is decent as the younger brother but he doesn't add anything significant to the movie. Miller, however, is fantastic in what is sure to be a breakout role for him. His range of emotion is terrific as he truly makes the viewer feel everything he is going through. Miller is perfectly cast making the story more compelling and breathing some life into the film. Sadly, the script, pacing, and jumping timeline can't be fixed, making this a movie you want to watch but can't really sit through.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) should have found a way to build more tension and anticipation in order to keep the viewers interested and invested. Other than two shocking scenes (that you would only know about if you knew the real-life story of the Bell family) there is little in the script and the production to hold onto.
I wanted to like Joe Bell and champion its cause but the paint-by-numbers script, Wahlberg's performance, and Green's inability to make the story more captivating seals the film's fate.