The first event at which we see Joe Bell (Mark Wahlberg) speak his anti-bullying message can’t help but make you laugh. He’s standing on-stage with a disheveled look cultivated by a weeks-long journey on foot, spouting more nervous “ums” then concrete dialogue as his son Jadin (Reid Miller) watches at the back of the auditorium. The scene lasts less than two minutes before Bell asks the audience of teenagers if they have any questions as though his awkward presence was enough to spark conversation let alone change. It’s the epitome of performative allyship and self-assuaging action that can often do more harm than good. An empty speech won’t inspire people to embrace a cause. It will instead embolden the intolerant into believing their opponents have nothing to say.
Let’s be honest: Bell didn’t have anything to say. His cross-country mission was built upon superficial notions of tolerance that society loves to present as fact despite often refusing to put them into practice. Yes, we shouldn’t discriminate against people different than us. Yes, Jadin shouldn’t have endured what he did as an openly gay teen in an ultra-conservative Oregonian town. Yes, Joe loved his son despite it all. But they did discriminate. Jadin did endure suffering no child of any sexual orientation, race, or religion should. And while Joe begrudgingly accepted who his son was behind closed doors, did he make it known to his neighbors and the community at-large outside those walls’ safety? Did he realize his silence might have hurt more than their fists?
The answer to that last question is what Oscar-winning screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana seek to provide with Good Joe Bell and its true-life tale of one man’s struggle to come to grips with his complicity in his child’s anguish. Originally announced in 2015 with Cary Joji Fukunaga attached to direct, the project would eventually fall into the hands of Reinaldo Marcus Green fresh off his debut Monsters and Men. Anyone who’s seen that title will know he’s a good fit since it also depicted “bullying” (by way of systemic racism on behalf of American law enforcement and its impact upon those reconciling their place within it against their desires to improve it) and the complex perspectives arising from its seemingly binary good versus evil premise.
Every decision we make must first travel through this gray area of uncertainty because every decision we make carries importance beyond ourselves. Jadin succinctly and brilliantly renders this issue visible during a confrontation shortly after that aforementioned on-stage appearance. Two bigots walk into the diner where they’re about to eat and begin spewing vile homophobic rhetoric upon sitting down. Joe gets up, hands them a card explaining his message, and leaves without ordering. He thinks that’s enough. He thinks that’s his good deed and the rest is up to them because he’s done his part, but Jadin reminds him this isn’t true. That’s not fighting for a cause. That’s burying it. That’s refusing to confront his place within the conversation. It’s Joe putting his head in the sand.
These things don’t work themselves out. Activism can’t simply stop after presenting your case as though truth rises to the surface and compassion always wins. The less you drive your point home through action, the greater chance your opponents will transform their bigotry into policy and subsequently indoctrinate their children into believing their hate is righteous. And Joe has no legs to stand on if he dares hold himself as being different. Letting your son join the cheerleading squad before forcing him to practice in the backyard so nobody sees isn’t acceptance. It’s fear. It’s doing the bare minimum to tell himself he’s a good father while doing more to ensure his town and church won’t tell him he’s less of a man for “allowing” it to happen.
That’s a powerful gut-punch of a realization more people need to understand and why this story is so vital for providing it the way that it does. To that end, I won’t divulge what some will call a twist despite it being common knowledge to anyone who followed the real Joe Bell’s journey as it happened in 2013. There’s a reason McMurtry and Ossana wrote and Green directs the script the way they have and it’s the emotional and psychological trajectory of their lead. How is Joe Bell handling the guilt and grief mixing together within him and how is he processing the truth that his own actions (and inaction) were the main source of their creation? What’s he learning from those he seeks to teach?
And if you’re thinking that this seems like some pretty heavy subject matter for an actor like Mark Wahlberg to handle effectively, get ready to be pleasantly surprised. With heartrending scenes opposite Miller, Connie Britton (as Bell’s wife Lola), Maxwell Jenkins (as their youngest son Joseph), and Gary Sinise (as a sheriff in one of the towns along the way), Wahlberg holds his own to deliver what might be the best performance of his career. Always comfortable in comedic roles wherein his inherent charisma is allowed to shine unencumbered (get ready for his duet alongside Miller of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”), he’s fully committed himself to providing that same natural authenticity here in moments of absolute despair. We feel his pain from frame number one.
It helps that the film is so beautifully drawn as a cathartic therapy session comprised of memories, epiphanies, and regrets. The entirety of Good Joe Bell is an awakening not for those who actively harm at-risk youth like Jadin, but those who don’t realize the implicit harm they’re supplying by centering allyship on themselves rather than those they’re supporting. Joe Bell is not a perfect human being or husband or father. His temper, rage, and misogyny are on full display throughout because he is more like those bigots in the diner than he’d admit. The real Lola Bell says that Joe believed his walk would be worth it if he saved one life. He may not have known then that he was also working to redeem his own.
Good Joe Bell premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.