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#TIFF20 Review: Good Joe Bell (Gala Presentations)

September 19, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Based on the true story of a father who started walking across America to raise awareness of bullying in honour of his son, Good Joe Bell is a well-intentioned drama that includes some moving moments, but makes an equal number of questionable and frustrating storytelling choices.

Joe Bell (Mark Wahlberg) is an All-American dad to teenaged son Jadin (Reid Miller), a kid who would rather be a cheerleader than be on the football team. When Jadin comes out as gay, and tells his father about the horrific bullying that he is being forced to endure at school, Joe tacitly accepts him but also treats it as a reason for why his son needs to toughen up and not outwardly reveal his sexuality.

The bullying escalates, leading to a tragic turn of events that prompts Joe to start walking from Oregon to New York, where Jadin has always dreamed of living. The purpose of Joe’s walking trip is supposedly to spread the message that bullying is wrong, which includes giving awkward speeches in front of high schoolers about not picking on those who are different. But Joe’s walk has more to do with assuaging his own sense of guilt than it does with actually helping Jadin, a painful truth that he starts to confront.

The screenplay by Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana, who also wrote the script for Ang Lee’s much better Brokeback Mountain, employs a fractured narrative to tell its story, including the choice to frame the catalyst for the real life events as a twist halfway through. But they don’t quite pull it off, and I’m not entirely sure if this was the right narrative approach. At a scant ninety minutes, Good Joe Bell also feels rushed, and the film would have greatly benefitted from adding a good half-hour to its running time, which would have allowed the characters to be fleshed out even more.

The film serves as the sophomore feature of director Reinaldo Marcus Green, who was at the festival two years ago with his debut Monsters and Men, and perhaps a more seasoned director would have done a stronger jump of navigating the film’s tricky tone. Cary Joji Fukunaga was initially going to direct, but is now credited as a producer on the project instead. It’s also worth noting that there are no less than 22 producing credits on Good Joe Bell, and the film feels like the byproduct of too many influences.

The movie’s target audience seems to be parents who are struggling to accept their gay kids, and yes, this is a market that does need to be reached. But by centring its narrative around Joe, the film is also telling its story from a very narrow and, well, straight, viewpoint. Wahlberg’s character is given the interesting arc of having to reconcile himself with his own shortcomings as a father, including the fact that he didn’t do enough to make his son feel accepted at home, which is something that the film does an alright job of exploring. But a better film would have given Jadin more of an arc as well.

There are scenes here that feel like they are out of a better movie, including a conversation that Joe has in a gay bar, which is the only moment when the character actually interacts with any queer people other than his son. There is also a nicely acted scene involving an understanding sheriff (Gary Sinise) that provides the basis of the film’s fairly affecting climax, and Wahlberg does do a decent job of handling these quieter emotional beats.

Miller delivers the best acting work in the film as Jadin, and his heartbreaking performance is its one standout element. It’s a movie that otherwise somewhat frustratingly doesn’t quite work, and the choice to frame a story about homophobia around a straight protagonist is questionable, to say the least. Still, Good Joe Bell features a handful of moving scenes that cut through the film’s overall superficiality.

Reid Miller and Mark Wahlberg in Good Joe Bell

Public Screenings:

Monday, September 14th – 9:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 4

Friday, September 18th – 6:00 PM at Bell Digital Cinema (Online for 24 Hours)

Saturday, September 19th – 8:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

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