By: Joseph R. Castel
Mark Wahlberg takes center stage to tackle the brutal consequences of physical and online bullying in “Joe Bell.” In this true life story, Wahlberg’s character Joe Bell and his 15 year-old gay son Jadin (Reid Miller) are walking across America to raise awareness in schools, churches, or to anyone that will listen to them about the devastating consequences of bullying children because they are LGBTQ.
The Oscar winning writing team of Brokeback Mountain, Diana Ossana and Larry McMurty collaborated on the screenplay that’s also produced by Wahlberg and Jake Gyllenhaal. Joe Bell even opens up like Brokeback with a long shot of a mountain range in the backdrop of a lonely highway, but instead of a single truck, it’s of Jadin and his father walking down the road, discussing the future. The effervescent teen argues that he wants to get out of La Grande, Oregon and move to New York City because the Big Apple’s got “Broadway and Gaga. Lady Gaga” he emphasizes, confident his father doesn’t know whom he’s talking about. He breaks into “Born this Way” spinning across the empty highway. Joe joins in, singing Gaga’s signature song, as they ease on down the road towards New York City.
In flashbacks, we learn Jadin is openly gay at his high school, and endures verbal and physical abuse by homophobic classmates. When Jadin tells his dad that he’s being picked on because he’s gay, Joe tells his son, “We’ll let nature take its course. It’ll work itself out.” Jadin’s mother, Lola, played by Connie Britton, calmly replies, ‘Joe, it’s not gonna work itself out.” A line that ends up being tragically prophetic.
Joe’s indifference evolves into semi-support for Jadin because he does love him so much, but he’s a working class man whose openly gay son is way out of his comfort zone. Joe believes Jadin is bringing too much attention to himself, especially when Jadin starts cheering with the girls at football games. In one scene, Joe sits with Lola in the stadium bleachers and watches in humiliation as teens and adults hurl objects and insults at the only boy cheerleader. Jadin isn’t able to contain his flamboyancy, he’s defiant, but he’s got no back up.
At a roadside café, Joe and Jadin are at the counter when a customer makes a derogatory remark about “queens” on television being everywhere. Joe loses his appetite, and leaves without ordering, but tells the burly homophobe that he’s walking across America for his gay son and hands him a card with his phone number. Outside the café, Jadin confronts his dad for running out. He tells him that what the customer said is just an appetizer compared to what he has to eat everyday at school.
In a press release, Wahlberg, states, “From the minute I read the script I thought this was a timely story that needed to be told. Joe Bell is a man who didn’t understand certain things about the world until he was faced with them in his own life, as a father. As a parent myself, I know how much fatherhood can change a man.” Wahlberg continues, “This is a story told from the heart of a man who walked from town to town to reach other families. It shows how a series of small steps can add up and make a big difference for anyone who needs to know they are loved and accepted.”
Even though both of Jadin’s parents took an active role to try and stop the physical abuse of their son by speaking to the school, there was little that the educators were willing to do to stop the harassment, and almost nothing could be done about the online bullying Jadin endured.
SPOILER ALERT AHEAD:
In a gay bar, a drag queen flirts with Joe. Joe tells her that he’s walking across America for his gay son. She tells him to bring him in next time, if he’s as cute as Joe. “My son is dead,” Joe replies. The queen apologizes profusely pulling both heels out of her mouth. All this time, while on the road, Joe has been talking to Jadin’s spirit. Even though Jadin’s suicide made national headlines in 2013, most people are not that familiar with the actual events.
The producers and writers thought it was best to reveal Jadin’s death one third of the way through, as this story is really about Joe’s search for redemption. He’s trying to understand what his son was going through, and what he could have done to keep him from taking his life. The only way he can honor Jadin now is to help save another life by talking to others about what he refused to say to his son, to the bullies, or to the school. LGBTQ minors are three times more prone to suicide than straight children.
It may seem a little gimmicky having Joe speak to his son in the flesh, only to reveal that he’s already dead, but many people do continue that internal dialogue in their heads while grieving over a loved one. They wrestle with regret, trying to understand how they could have loved their loved ones better, understand them more, or shown more patience. Hindsight can be a blistering sore, and Joe’s got blisters on his feet and his conscious to prove it.
This may not be Wahlberg’s most dramatic role (The Departed) or his sexiest (Boogie Nights) or even his most virtuoso (Rock Star), but it is his most important film to date as the movie will foster dialogue among so many people and hopefully will shine a healing light on society’s responsibility to protect children from being bullied in school, misunderstood in the home, and ultimately keep them from harming themselves.
Joe Bell is currently showing only in theatres.