Mark Wahlberg’s new movie gives the star a chance to round out his specialty playing working class Joes. Called Joe Bell, the fact-based story presents a man who gained fame on social media by walking across the United States and talking to groups about the dangers of bullying. With a safe premise—since few openly support bullying—the movie puts its heart in the right place. But with a slow start and lack of innovative presentation, Joe Bell comes off as well-meaning but bland.
Some of that static quality involves what really happened, and even those who know nothing of the true story will not find any major revelations. This proves a surprise considering the proven skills of its screenwriters, Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, who teamed successfully on Streets of Laredo and Brokeback Mountain. In one manner, the writers try for dramatic flair with a quote “big reveal” part way through the film, but it proves a familiar one.
Overall, the script maintains faithfulness to reality by recreating Joe’s painfully inarticulate speeches, but ultimately this approach fails to capture attention for the valid points he hopes to make. Still, Wahlberg pulls every inch from the role, melding into the range of emotions a red neck character faces as he attempts to deal with his son’s homosexuality. Confusion, fear, anger, sadness, and love all come to play, with Wahlberg hitting his marks in a strong performance.
As Joe’s son Jaden, young Reid Miller steps in with bullseye acting, capturing the pain and frustration of a teenager trying to fit into a culture that taunts him. The two stars interact well, especially as they hit the road in good looking location sequences directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green. But movies need more than solid production values. Despite a good soul, Joe Bell, both man and movie, never reach their lofty goals.