The heartbreaking true story of the gay teen and his dad behind ‘Joe Bell’

Entertainment

NBC News 22 July, 2021 - 04:59pm 32 views

When does Joe Bell come out?

Mark Wahlberg, left, and Gary Sinise star in “Joe Bell,” which will release in theaters Friday, July 23, 2021. The best scene in the film is a conversation near the end between Sinise and Wahlberg, two fathers of gay sons, and the epiphany that occurs during their talk. Galveston County Daily News'Joe Bell' gives powerful message but falls flat in execution

Mark Wahlberg isn’t up to the emotional legwork of the anti-bullying drama Joe Bell

Yahoo Lifestyle 22 July, 2021 - 03:01pm

By Joe’s side on this long trek is his teenage son, Jadin (Reid Miller), who tags along to high school assemblies where his father clumsily (and quite briefly) speaks on the importance of accepting people for who they are. Jadin is gay, and it’s in his honor that Joe is marching, to raise awareness about the kind of relentless abuse the boy endured at his small-town school. Joe Bell cuts from scenes of the two bickering and bonding on the road to the events of several months earlier, when Jadin came out to his family and community. This flashback structure comes courtesy of screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, who also penned the Oscar-winning adaptation of Brokeback Mountain—a more elegant drama about the burden placed on gay men just trying to live in a country hostile to their very existence.

This time, Ossana and McMurtry have looked to headlines, not fiction, for source material. Those who know what the real Bell family went through will immediately recognize the narrative subterfuge of the early scenes, which withhold information a simple Google search would uncover. Without “spoiling” this tragic true story, let’s just say that it’s a debatably tasteful choice made for dramatic and emotional expediency—a “twist” that the movie occasionally risks implausibility to protect. For example, would a school principal really offer no context to an assembly of students for why this particular father is here to speak to them about the dangers of bullying? Though Joe is supposedly crossing America to educate and have empathetic discussions, the film devises only a handful of encounters for him—partially because it’s spending so much of its running time concealing the nature of what he might actually discuss with the strangers he meets.

“It means well” is the faint praise one uses to damn a movie like this. Maybe it could have worked with a different star. Wahlberg, again, isn’t exactly unconvincing as a narrow-minded man trying to compensate for the prejudiced mistakes of his past. He looks most comfortable during early stretches of the movie, when it’s behaving like a buddy comedy between father and son; the actor’s comedic chops take a little of the cornball cringe out of a scene of the gruff Joe surprising Jadin by joining him on the chorus of “Born This Way.” But Wahlberg, delivering a performance that feels like community service, just isn’t up to driving a drama whose conflict is almost entirely internal; his default setting of sneering irritation is the wrong tool for the job. It leaves you wondering if this should have more fully been Jadin’s story, especially given the sensitivity of Miller’s turn. “I made it about me,” Joe Bell eventually, climactically confesses of his son’s struggle. Joe Bell does the same, and if its heart is in the right place, its dramatic priorities are not.

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Is ‘Joe Bell’ Based on a True Story?

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The new biographical drama directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men), with a screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, is headed to theaters this weekend, and it’s sure to take audiences on an emotional journey. Wahlberg stars as Joe Bell, a man who decides to walk across the United States to raise awareness for a campaign against bullying after his teenage son dies by suicide.

The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September and has received mixed reviews from critics so far, with some faulting the film for being overly formulaic and melodramatic. But the fact of the matter is that Joe Bell is based on real life—and sometimes life is cruel. Read on to learn more about the Joe Bell true story.

Yes. Joe Bell is based on the true story of a man whose 15-year-old openly gay son, Jadin Bell, died by suicide in 2013. You may want to stop reading now if you’re worried about being spoiled for the movie because Joe Bell’s story is tragic for more reasons than one. After losing his son, Bell quit his job at a wood manufacturing company and embarked on a cross-country walking trip in honor of his son, intending to raise awareness for Faces for Change, a non-profit anti-bullying foundation that Bell helped launch. He started in his home state of Oregon in April 2013—one month after his son died—with a plan to walk across the continental United States in two years.

About halfway into his walk, on October 9, 2013, Bell was struck and killed by a semi-truck in Colorado. He was 48 years old. The driver of the truck was cited with reckless driving.

Bell had been documenting his journey on his Facebook page, Joe’s Walk For Change. A Facebook post announcing Bell’s death in 2013 read, “Thank you so much for all of your continued support, he loved everyone he came into contact with, and was so appreciative of all of your support. He will continue his journey now with Jadin. Please keep his family in your prayers and thoughts.”

Bell’s non-profit organization, Faces For Change, granted its first scholarship in 2014, and the organization can be found on Facebook.

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The title character of this movie, originally titled “Good Joe Bell,” speaks, uneasily, to a group of high school students somewhere out west about his ambitious walk across America. The Oregon native undertook his bullying awareness campaign in 2013 to draw attention to his 15-year-old son Jadin’s experiences as a target of relentless harassment, at school and online, after he came out as gay.

This early scene in “Joe Bell” is framed as a sincere but not particularly effective interaction between Bell and the students. “Just be yourself,” reminds son Jadin (Reid Miller, very good). The movie tries to take that advice. But it’s like that scene with the students: sincere, but something’s missing.

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (“Monsters and Men”) from a screenplay by the “Brokeback Mountain” team of Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, “Joe Bell” benefits from some authentically forceful actors, starting with Wahlberg and Miller, along with the reliably great Connie Britton as Bell’s wife, Lola. Gary Sinise arrives late in the story as a handily sympathetic small-town sheriff. It’s a spoiler, I suppose, to go into how and why Jadin and his father share the long cross-country journey in the first third of the picture.

Flashbacks reveal the screenwriters’ version of Jadin’s life before Bell’s walk across America. The teenager joined the high school football cheerleading team, which led to his crush on one of the football players. Easy-breathing connections were scarce for this boy.

But it’s not really about him. It’s about his dad, and how he grows into a better, more understanding, less rage-fueled version of himself. When Sinise shows up, he and Wahlberg share a heart-to-heart that many will find to be the best thing in “Joe Bell.” It’s Bell’s confessional and his epiphany, and when Wahlberg delivers the line “I just made Jadin’s being gay all about Joe Bell,” it’s another case of the movie pointing out its own limitations.

Wahlberg has been very, very good in various sorts of movies, and he manages some of his cleanest and least calculating acting in “Joe Bell,” a true-life story of a man who endured, second-hand, the tragic cost of prejudice.

“It’s not OK to torment somebody ‘cause they’re different from you,” the actor says at one point. Wahlberg’s own teenaged years, complicated by drugs and a lot of destructive rage, no doubt provided plenty of emotional fodder for this project. In 1986 and 1988 Wahlberg was charged in separate hate crimes against Black children and Vietnamese men. An attempted murder charge was reduced to a felony, to which Wahlberg pled guilty. He served 45 days of a two-year prison sentence.

Years later the actor was offered one of the leads in director Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain,” a project Wahlberg told one interviewer “creeped him out.” He passed on the project. Fifteen years later, Wahlberg took on “Joe Bell,” which feels like a tidy, encoded act of atonement.

Is it fair game to bring any of this up in a movie review? Sometimes, yes. What an actor goes through in life; how that life shapes an actor’s presence and understanding and effectiveness in all sorts of roles; these things matter.

There’s a good movie in the story of Joe Bell and Jadin Bell. The good one struggles to emerge from the good try we have here.

MPAA rating: R (for language including offensive slurs, some disturbing material and teen partying)

How to watch: Premieres Thursday evening July 23 in theaters; streaming premiere TBA.

Twitter @phillipstribune

Copyright © 2021, Chicago Tribune

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Based on a true story, Joe Bell stars Wahlberg as, well, Joe Bell, a man whose 15-year-old openly gay son Jadin died by suicide in 2013. In an effort to raise awareness for a campaign against bullying, Bell embarked on a walk across the United States, a journey that was harrowing both emotionally and physically. The film, previously titled Good Joe Bell, premiered at Toronto International Film Festival last September, and, after a few false starts, is now finally coming out in theaters this weekend.

Reviews for Joe Bell have been mixed so far. The film currently holds a 41 percent on the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, with critics calling the film good-hearted, but formulaic and heavy-handed. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t judge this movie for yourself. Here’s what to know about where to watch Joe Bell, and when to expect Joe Bell on streaming.

Joe Bell will open in theaters in the U.S. on Friday, July 23. For now, the only place to watch Joe Bell is in a movie theater. You can find a showing at a theater near you here.

Joe Bell is not yet on streaming, and the digital release date for Joe Bell has not yet been announced. However, we do know that Vertical Entertainment will be releasing Joe Bell on premium video-on-demand in the not-too-distant future.

Our best guess as to when Joe Bell will be available on digital is sometime around the end of August. The last film from Roadside Attractions, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, became available to buy or rent on-demand almost exactly one month after opening in theaters, and we can assume that Joe Bell will follow a similar pattern.

No. Joe Bell is not a Warner Bros. film, and therefore it will not stream on HBO Max at the same time it’s in theaters. HBO Max, which is owned by Warner Media, is the streaming home for Warner Bros. blockbusters like Space Jam: A New Legacy, but Joe Bell is being distributed by Roadside Attractions and Vertical Entertainment. While it’s possible that Joe Bell will be on HBO someday, it won’t be any time soon.

No, sorry. Joe Bell is opening in theaters and is not a Netflix original film. While it may be on Netflix someday, for now, you’ll have to go to a movie theater to see Joe Bell. However, you can watch Spenser Confidential—a very different kind of Mark Wahlberg movie—on Netflix right now.

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