A key moment in the fact-based JOE BELL comes early one as the titular character (Mark Wahlberg), a working-class man from a small town in Oregon, is told by his adolescent son, Jadin (Reid Miller) that he is being bullied at school for being gay. It’s two revelations, and Joe doesn’t miss a beat telling Jaden that he loves and accepts him and offering to teach his son to fight, or to fight the bullies himself. Still, it’s obvious that Joe’s priority at that moment is to get back to the game playing on his big-screen television It is that moment of good intentions gone wrong that lie at the heart of the tragedy to come.
The bullying becomes worse as the shortcomings of mere acceptance by Joe become apparent. If the school resists taking action against the jocks tormenting Jadin, the heavier blow comes when Joe tells his son to take his cheerleading practice from the front yard to the back. For all the fear on Jadin’s face as he’s being bullied in the school locker room, it is nothing to the pain in his eyes when he realizes how embarrassed his father is about his being a cheerleader, despite having given the okay for it. The former may have left bruises; the latter breaks his spirit. You can see it in Jadin’s eyes, and you can see the effect it has on Joe as what he is doing to his son registers on his face, along with his own self-inflicted pain for what he’s done. Here, as elsewhere, father and son can’t find the words to be honest with each other. Walhberg and Miller, here as elsewhere, deliver strong, heartbreaking performances that are emotionally complex and all the more powerful for relying on subtlety and nuance. There is unexpected vulnerability in their bravado that underscores the bewildered hope their characters cling to, afraid of what will happen if they let go.
The film takes an elegiac tone as Joe walks from Oregon to New York to honor his son by telling anyone along the way who will listen about the toll bullying took on the boy and on his family. It’s also a metaphorical journey set against the vast American West, during which Joe comes to painful terms with how he failed his son. The metaphor is reinforced with the idiom of having Jadin walking along with him; father and son finally finding the words they should have spoken earlier, including finding the real definition of being a man. They engage in seemingly trivial conversations, good-natured chiding, and pointed confrontations, all of which force Joe to face his mistakes, and thereby allow him to come to terms with them. Flashbacks fill in the events that triggered Joe’s walk, and phone calls home in the present to his wife (Connie Britton) reveal the depths of his anguish. Both are episodic, which suits the stream-of-consciousness idiom taken by screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry. One can almost believe that the people Joe meets in the present might be projections of his inner conflicts, particularly a sheriff (a laconic Gary Sinise) with a family story not unlike Joe’s.
JOE BELL’s story is a harsh one, but told with tenderness and compassion, as is fitting in a story that takes forgiveness as its theme. Not as something simple, but as something necessary in order to heal oneself, and then to get on with the larger job of healing the world.