TIFF Review: The deeply earnest ‘Good Joe Bell’ is a story of self-redemption
Plot: The true story of an Oregon father, Joe Bell, who sets out on a walk across America in honor of his son.
Reinaldo Marcus Green’s GOOD JOE BELL is a well-intentioned yet on-the-nose, overly sentimental and constantly bogged down by a repetitive script that aims to move its audience but ends up hammering down the same points with little impact. A tear-jerking, sincere film that addresses tolerance and inclusion, it will find its way to audiences who appreciate moving dramas, but it could have found a larger audience had it approached its subject a bit differently.
Based on true events, Mark Wahlberg stars as Joe Bell, an Oregon father who lives with his wife and two sons in a community that almost takes pride in being intolerant. At school Joe’s son Jadin is publicly bullied for being gay and when the family reaches out to the school, nothing is done to prevent, or even reduce, the psychological torture that the boy is subjected to on a daily basis. But Jadin’s problems do not end there: his father also struggles with coming to terms with his son’s sexual identity.
Despite trying to be supportive, he can’t help but shake the notion that his son’s nature will have dire consequences on his social image. And when thinks take a dramatic and unfortunate turn, Joe decides to go on a trip of self redemption: walking all the way from Oregon to New York. Along the way he meets people from all walks of life and tries to raise awareness about bullying. Not everyone is supportive or ready to listen, but some are – and that’s what Joe considers his true purpose.
Somewhere in GOOD JOE BELL there’s a better and more interesting movie that could have been told. A particular scene, mid-way through the film, shows how much the story could have delved into Joe’s intentions rather than focus on him being in preaching-mode for almost the entire runtime. In this pivotal scene, his wife confronts him as to whether his journey is for truly for Jadin or whether he’s gaining some sort of self gratification from becoming some sort of media star after news broke about his months-long trip. But the filmmakers chose not to follow up on this interesting premise and instead, the script hammers down, over and over, Joe’s feelings of guilt and plight for self redemption to the point some audiences may say: we get it.
As well-intentioned the film is, and as true to the real incidents that the filmmakers attempted to be, one can’t help but wonder why the film never truly elevates itself beyond the expected to become something more nuanced, layered and less on-the-nose.
As Joe, Mark Wahlberg gives one of his best performances to date. Raw, sincere and committed, he gives Joe a voice, despite how monotonous, repetitive and literal it comes off on screen. Reid Miller also excels as Jadin, giving an honest and heartfelt portrayal of how it feels to be different in a community that’s not ready to support you nor interested in even listening to what you have to say.
Verdict: Bogged down by a literal and occasionally repetitive screenplay, GOOD JOE BELL will have its fans and may very well resonate with mainstream audiences thanks to its important, timely themes and fantastic performances but ultimately leaves much to be desired.