Mon. Sep 28th, 2020

TIFF Review: Shortcuts and misdirected focus don’t ring true in ‘Good Joe Bell’

A road paved with good intentions, GOOD JOE BELL begins as a story about the shared physical and emotional journey of Joe Bell and his fifteen-year old son, Jadin, who, bullied over his homosexuality, committed suicide in 2013.

The film opens with a Walt Whitman quote, “Keep your face always toward the sunshine and shadows will fall behind you.”

The quote, absent from early versions of the script, isn’t Whitman’s.  It’s most likely Charles Swain’s, and based probably on a Maori Proverb.  It’s a lazily misattributed and rather tone-deaf appropriation—not the sort of opener you’d expect from two Oscar-winning screenwriters, and for good reason.

Joe (a peculiarly-cast Mark Wahlberg) makes his way to Canyon Ridge High School in Twin Falls, Idaho, to speak out against bullying.   After a couple of sentences, he plugs his Facebook page and concludes the talk.  From the doorway, Jadin (Reid Miller, luminous yet sadly underused) looks on with disappointment.  The next day, he admonishes his dad’s platitudes, “‘Just be who you are and it’ll all be fine.’  How can you say that when you know it’s a lie?”

Some of you will guess, some will Google, others will know, Joe’s Walk For Change—from Le Grand, Oregon, to New York City—began after Jadin’s death.  Joe’s hearing his own conscience, or remnants of his son’s.  At its best, GOOD JOE BELL gives us intimate portraits of Jadin through imagined conversations between father and son along long stretches of road.   In moments all too fleeting, we see flashbacks of Jadin’s life on his own terms—a budding relationship with a football player, Chance (Igby Rigney), his friendship with a confidant, Marcie (Morgan Lily).

The film focuses too heavily on Joe.  Even the critical moment, when Jadin comes out to his father (we get the sense the mother already knew), excludes key parts of the original screenplay by screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana.  Dialogues become monologues, giving Mark Wahlberg nearly all of the screen time.  This places the audience’s focus on Joe’s attempts, however misguided, to “protect” his son, and sets Joe up as a deeply flawed, but sympathetic figure—sidelining Jadin’s story.

In contrast to what Ossana and McMurtry intended GOOD JOE BELL to be, the end result from which they were completely divorced epitomizes Hollywood’s risk-averse, design-by-committee approach to filmmaking: script doctoring, and choppy scene edits (watch how many times you can hear but can’t see Wahlberg), clearly the final product of too many notes from a score of producers.  Likewise, changes were made at the helm before settling on Reinaldo Marcus Green—having only one feature under his belt—to replace Cary Fukunaga whose 2009 debut feature SIN NOMBRE won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.  Fukunaga left to work on the upcoming James Bond film.

It’s as if the gaggle of money men and women, feeling immense pressure, and, in spite of solid performances and character depth from Miller, Lily, Connie Britton as Lola Bell (Jadin’s mother), and Gary Sinise as a commiserating sheriff whose son is also gay, rearranged everything to showcase Wahlberg as though his chops are anywhere near Oscar-worthy.  It’s worth noting that Wahlberg, Green and Britton, are all repped by WME whose sister company, Endeavor Content, co-financed the picture.

Why do these shortcuts matter?  When I was in high school, I’d been bullied relentlessly for being disabled and an immigrant, and rumors swirled that I was gay.  My locker was vandalized three times in one semester, I was held down and physically assaulted near the gym showers, arrested for having the audacity to fight back against an abuser, and made to go through counseling.  As one school administrator put it so callously, “We can’t change the behavior of eight hundred other students, but we can change yours.”

That year I’d almost committed suicide and it’s only because of a brief distraction that I’m still here.  Unlike Jadin, I had the luxury of graduating just before the World Wide Web, before social media, before cyberbullying followed kids everywhere and led to the epidemic rates of teen suicide we see today.

The Trevor Project identifies suicide as the second leading cause of death for adolescents. Per the Centers for Disease Control, 6,252 Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 died by suicide in 2017 alone. According to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, between the years 2013 and 2015, 24 percent of teen suicides were among LGBT youth.

In a New York Times editorial written by Julie Halpert, whose son Garrett committed suicide in 2017,  she quotes Dr. Richard Tedeschi, a clinical psychologist, “What’s most important is to do something that benefits other people, something that is of service to others.”

The originally untitled project (the writers struggled with how best to encapsulate it), later reductively named GOOD JOE BELL, began in earnest with a desire to describe a journey that, as far as we’ve come since BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, never ends.  The original screenwriters endeavored to do a service to others—a virtue that runs contrary to the industry’s baser instinct of eliminating risk from their portfolio in service to themselves.

Hollywood, it seems, has taken Griffin Mill’s sarcasm at face value.

I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we’ve got something here.

Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), THE PLAYER

This review is from the 45th Toronto International Film Festival.

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