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A true story of gay bullying turns preachy in ‘Joe Bell’

Reid Miller and Mark Wahlberg star in “Joe Bell.”  (Quantrell D. Colbert/Roadside Attractions)
Reid Miller and Mark Wahlberg star in “Joe Bell.” (Quantrell D. Colbert/Roadside Attractions)
By Michael O’Sullivan Washington Post

Based on a true story about the bullying of a gay teenager and its tragic consequences, the drama “Joe Bell” has a message to deliver. That message, which is good and necessary – urgent even – isn’t simply the point of this well-meaning movie.

It’s the whole plot, which follows the teenager’s father, played by Mark Wahlberg, as he undertakes a mission to raise awareness about the effects of homophobia by walking across America while giving speeches. But as delivered by this film and its titular main messenger, those words feels less vital than perfunctory, more preachy than truly, deeply felt.

Inspired by the life of Joe Bell, a man who set out to walk from his home in Oregon to New York after his 15-year-old son Jadin was picked on and tormented at school – leading to an especially terrible outcome in 2013 – the film stars Wahlberg in the title role, as Joe hikes from small town to small town speaking in front of school groups and other small gatherings.

His remarks are short and awkward. Adopting a scowl, trucker cap, scruffy beard and a countrified accent, Wahlberg’s Joe just doesn’t know what to say to convince anyone of anything, including his son (Reid Miller), who appears in flashbacks to have had a strained relationship with his father, and a somewhat better one with his mother (Connie Britton).

On the other hand, the relationship between Joe and Jadin seems pretty good in scenes from the road, where the boy appears as a metaphorical apparition to help Dad work through his guilt and find closure about his role in the tragedy that precipitates Joe’s journey. Their imaginary conversations are a gimmick, of course, and a heavy-handed one at that.

Although the script was written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, who shared a writing Oscar for “Brokeback Mountain,” don’t let that fool you. “Joe Bell” bears no similarity to their subtly understated 2005 adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story about gay cowboys in love other than the theme of homosexuality and the West.

Although Miller is excellent as the doomed teen, Wahlberg seems out of his league here except in the actor’s rendering of Joe’s acute discomfort with public speaking and confrontation – which is odd in a movie that wears its heart, and its lessons, on its sleeve.

Perhaps the tongue-tied Everyman is true to life. The real Joe Bell wasn’t a media creation but a flesh-and-blood person who hoped his actions would speak louder than his words. However, as Joe makes his way toward New York, the character seems like he’d prefer it if everybody just left him alone.

Emotional scenes – or at least those in which Joe isn’t yelling and cussing at Jadin and the boy’s best friend Marcie (Morgan Lily) to take their cheerleading practice sessions to the backyard, where the neighbors can’t see – seem taxing on Wahlberg’s abilities, which are arguably better suited to action films.

There is some character development here: Joe eventually gets better at making his case to strangers thanks to feedback from his son, who lives only in Joe’s mind (and as a clumsy storytelling device in service of the main character’s redemption). Joe also finds a small measure of peace regarding his complicity in Jadin’s fate, making the film’s focus on the father, rather than the son, feel out of whack.

“Joe Bell” tells a very specific story about martyrdom. In a way, though, it also feels like a tiny bid for redemption by Wahlberg, who was himself convicted of an assault, at 16, against two Vietnamese men in 1988 Dorchester, Mass. The long-ago echo of that real-world attack – arguably another hate crime, for which the actor served 45 days – reverberates throughout what is ultimately the emptiness of “Joe Bell,” like a call for forgiveness of another sort.

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