Cashing in on tragedy or poignant societal commentary?
JOE BELL (2021)
Going to start this by pointing out there are spoilers in this review; however, I also think it’s impossible to spoil a film based on a news story that’s been in the public consciousness for nearly a decade.
In 2013, Le Grande, Oregon resident Jadin Bell committed suicide after extreme bullying at school for being gay. He was 15 years old. In memory of his son, Joe Bell started Faces for Change, a non-profit dedicated to discussing the dangers of bullying at local high schools, and planned a cross country walk he hoped to complete in two years. Sadly, Joe was killed by a truck driver roughly 6 months after starting his walk and only 8 months after Jadin passed away. Father and son’s stories have been adapted in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Joe Bell, presenting an intertwined story of growth and tragedy.
I’ll start with the positive and point out that the film is beautifully filmed with a lot of care obviously being put into shot composition. Told primarily through closeup shots, Joe Bell attempts to explore characters’, or at least Joe Bell’s, emotions. However, who Green doesn’t really try to capture is Jadin. The extreme bullying Jadin actually suffered through is instead portrayed to viewers in a formulaic presentation that, with some minor adjustments, could fit in just as easily in a coming-of-age film while the characterizations of both Bells fall into little more than stereotypical representations of a young gay teen and a blue-collar worker who overcomes his homophobia due to tragedy. Green is so heavy handed while also remaining completely tone deaf in his attempt to portray tragedy that the film’s message beyond the infantilizing “bullying = bad” and Jadin’s story (which is integral for explaining Joe’s actions), are lost.
Again, going to start by saying there are some poignant scenes in the film that do make it a heart wrenching watch, most notably when Lola Bell (Connie Britton) discovers Jadin (Reid Miller) has killed himself. However, these scenes aren’t enough to make the movie a good or powerful film. Could the script have been saved by a less heavy-handed director attempting to make a poignant societal commentary on the dangers of bullying? Personally, I doubt it. Writers Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurty, whose last collaboration was 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, deliver a film that would have been groundbreaking like their last film but in 2021 feels stagnant and out of touch. The most accurate line actually comes over an hour into the film when Joe (Mark Wahlberg) says, “I made Jadin being gay all about Joe Bell. About me,” which is actually the only thing Joe Bell accomplishes. This doesn’t mean Joe Bell is in any way undeserving of recognition for what he accomplished in the few short months between Jadin’s death and his own, but Joe Bell fails to tell the ins-and-outs of the Bells’ story. Instead of showcasing how Jadin was kept on life support for several weeks before his family made the impossible decision to pull him off, Jadin’s suicide arc is shown for all of 2 minutes. Viewers also don’t see how hard Joe worked to start Faces for Change and the decision to walk across the United States, instead Joe sits in Jadin’s bedroom for a month and suddenly decides to walk. Jadin’s story is almost nonexistent, only there to set up Joe’s redemption arc from homophobe to anti-bullying advocate.
I fully understand the importance of anti-bullying, and I believe film is a perfect tool to showcase how bullying can affect people; however, Joe Bell is not an anti-bullying movie; it’s tragedy porn wrapped up as an anti-bullying message. It truly believes that showing a few text messages and a handful of brief instances of physical violence are a great PSA. Instead of showing the mental anguish bullying has caused Jadin—making him go from a happy child to someone in an unfathomable amount of pain—the film plops you right at the end of his life so Joe’s journey can be the primary focus. This is perfectly exemplified by making the viewer go through a series of flashbacks and Joe’s visual hallucinations while he walks by not disclosing Jadin’s death until the viewer is 40 minutes in. Normally you would think there would be a powerful scene where viewers would be either shocked or bawling. Instead, the film shows Joe awkwardly say, “My son’s dead” to a drag queen at a gay bar, while continuously saying, “It’s okay,” before cutting to the day Jadin committed suicide.
I realize the film is Joe Bell and not Jadin Bell, but the latter would have made a much more poignant anti-bullying story than the former. I want to know who Jadin was, not the stereotype Osana and McMurty wrote, and what his life was like. I want to know about his friends. I want to see how his school failed him by not taking complaints seriously and how his death affected his community. I want to see his familial dynamics.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
The only saving grace in the film is Reid Miller who delivers a powerful performance in the little bit of screen time his character receives. I obviously did not know the real Jadin, but I like to imagine him having the same zest for life we see in brief glimpses in Joe Bell. That being said, Hollywood writing stereotypes do creep in, with Jadin’s dialogue sounding like what Hollywood imagines the quintessential tortured gay teen says.
Whoever made the decision to cast Mark Wahlberg missed the mark. While Wahlberg can certainly deliver a powerful punch when he needs to, he tends to have two modes: angry and not-angry. As Joe Bell, the fake sobbing and proclamations of love that would also work if directed towards a turkey sandwich just don’t feel believable. However, what might have worked would have been focusing on Jadin’s story and having Wahlberg as a bit character (although he may have passed on the project if structured that way).
The supporting cast of Connie Britton, the eternal conflicted mother, and Gary Sinise, the eternal words of wisdom, are nothing to write home about. They could have given the same dialogue in a different film and wouldn’t have felt out of place.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
The drag queen makeup and Jadin’s when dressed up as David Bowie are top-notch and costumey as they're supposed to be. Connie Britton’s perfectly aged to resemble the real Lola Bell while Wahlberg’s appearance, while nothing like the real Joe Brown’s, does reflect what grief does to a person.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
The score fits the mood of the film. The best part in regards to the music is actually a brief scene where Wahlberg and Miller sing a few lines in an off-key rendition of Lady Gaga’s 'Born This Way'. Nothing stands out in the music, but it works due to the heavy storyline.
Joe Bell suffers from not knowing what it wants to be. It’s anti-bullying message focuses far too much on the people around the person who committed suicide while the homophobic redemption arc feels passe. It probably would have felt more relevant if released 8 years ago, but in 2021, it just falls flat.