JOE BELL was previously reviewed at TIFF 2020 under the title Good Joe Bell

PLOT: A father (Mark Wahlberg) walks across America to raise awareness for bullying after his gay soon is viciously tormented in his Oregon high school by his homophobic classmates.

REVIEW: Joe Bell is another TIFF title that’s tricky to review. Much of the movie hinges on a spoiler that’s revealed relatively early in the film and is easy to find if you simply google Joe or Jadin Bell, with this being based on a true story. However, in the interest of keeping this spoiler-free, I’m not going to reveal what the “twist” is, but suffice to say any real discussion of the film is incomplete without going into it.

Nevertheless, this is an effective plea for tolerance and empathy, and a commendable effort for Mark Wahlberg, who’s trying to communicate a thoroughly important message. It’s his most important film in years and, not coincidentally, features one of his finest performances.

He’s perfectly cast, bringing his fast-talking intensity to the complex part. Joe Bell’s essentially a good man, but he makes a lot of mistakes when his son Jadin (well-played by Reid Miller) comes out of the closet. Desperate for his acceptance, the boy is heartbroken when Joe seems more interested in his new HDTV. He’s relatively tolerant, but he’s also confused and uncomfortable anytime the boy starts to assert his homosexuality, as when he joins the cheerleading squad and practices his cheers out front for the neighbors to see.

We see that Miller’s Jadin is a lot braver than his dad, being forced to take on hulking bullies every day of his life while his parents look on. It would be nice if his tough-guy dad stood up for him, but it never happens, while his mom (played by Connie Britton) is caring but passive. Worse still are the school administrators, who caution him and his parents not to report the bullies, as it could alienate and upset the townsfolk. 

Eventually, Joe winds up on the road with his son, going to high schools and pleading with kids to open their hearts, but as he’s told by his son numerous times, he’s preaching to the choir. Wahlberg plays Joe as thick-headed and prone to flying way off the handle, but gives him soul, with his walk, in many ways, his penance for never being there for his son and a way to atone, rather than changing hearts and minds – at first.

Directed by Monsters and Men’s Reinaldo Marcus Green, this is beautifully shot by Jacques Jouffret in an ultra-wide aspect ratio that seems closer to 2:55:1 than regular scope, with it, evocatively capturing his trek across country. Yet it’s the performances that make Joe Bell a winner, with Wahlberg and Miller having pitch-perfect chemistry and a real sense of affection for each other, especially when they have a sing-a-long to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”. Miller, in particular, is strong in a heartbreaking role. 

Yet, the real show-stopping moment comes later in the film when Joe is stopped by an older cop, played by Gary Sinise, with the two unburdening themselves to each other in a riveting, cathartic scene that helps make the movie. Sinise has been out of films for too long, and there’s something undeniably moving about watching him make his comeback with an honest to God plea for people to just be kind. It sends the movie off on the perfect note, elevating it to must-see status. Again, this is a truly commendable effort by all involved, and a movie I think everyone should watch. It’s certainly something different from Wahlberg, but it features one of his richest, most commited performances in years. 

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