Review by Sean Boelman
There are some films that are clearly made with the best of intentions yet come from such an inauthentic perspective that any positive benefit they would have is lost in a sea of misguidedness. Unfortunately, such is the case with Reinaldo Marcus Green’s sophomore feature Good Joe Bell, which shows that the talented filmmaker is more apt to tell gritty and personal stories rather than trite and crowd-pleasing ones.
Based on a true story, the movie follows a man who sets out on a walk across the country to educate youth about the dangers of bullying and promote a message of compassion. Joe Bell’s story was pretty newsworthy at the time it happened, and while a lot of viewers have probably already forgotten it, the fact that it’s been turned into something uplifting and inspirational is not making the most out of this story’s potential, but that’s the least of its issues.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the film is that it is heavily based in stereotypes. As the title implies, this is the story of Joe Bell, not his son Jadin, and Jadin’s coming out only serves as a device to stimulate growth in his father’s arc. Arguably more frustrating is that, after Jadin comes out, the only activities shown to suggest him embracing his identity are joining the cheerleading team and singing “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga.
Reid Miller gives a very solid performance as Jadin Bell, if only the script allowed him a more substantial part instead of focusing almost exclusively on his father. Mark Wahlberg has solid chemistry with Miller, but his performance feels very out-of-place. It’s too big in a movie that demands subtlety, and feels apologetic for Wahlberg’s past.
And then there are the cheesy moments that feel thrown in out of narrative obligation rather than to legitimately build the story. It’s a little shocking to think that these writers are Academy Award winners, because this script feels so conventional and inauthentic. Yes, it will satisfy those who are looking for nothing more than a good message and shallow ideas, but anyone looking for something of substance will be sorely disappointed.
The core message of the film is one of acceptance. We shouldn’t have to learn to accept anyone, but it’s the sad truth that some people somehow still need this education, and providing that was Joe Bell’s mission. That said, a redemption arc is simply not the most effective way of accomplishing his goals.
There are also some questionable artistic choices made in the movie, and this likely boils down to a disconnect between the writers’ intention and the director’s vision. It’s shot in a wide aspect ratio that is generally reserved for flashier pictures when this is clearly more intimate. The result is disorienting and distracting.
Good Joe Bell sounds like it has a lot of potential on paper, but unfortunately, it comes from a place that makes it mostly ineffective. Hopefully the obviously talented Reid Miller can recover his career from this supposed breakout, because it feels like something that could easily be a stain on his resumé.
Good Joe Bell screened as a part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival which runs September 10-19 and offers a blend of in-person and virtual (geoblocked to Canada) screenings.