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The sprawling plains of Idaho and Utah, their tufted prairies dappled by cloud-filtered light and edged by craggy mountains, provide a spiritual setting for bruising personal reflection in Good Joe Bell. Led by a performance that feels grounded in genuine pain and atonement from Mark Wahlberg as a real-life father on a personal crusade against the vicious intolerance that has made his gay son’s life hell, the drama is directed with great sensitivity by Reinaldo Marcus Green, working from an empathetic screenplay by Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, the Oscar-winning team behind Brokeback Mountain.
Sincere and emotionally charged, the movie doesn’t entirely skirt the tenor of an after school special or a dramatized Trevor Project PSA. But that doesn’t make the story any less moving or the victimization of LGBTQ youth any less urgent a social problem, even with the shifting attitudes and raised awareness of toxic bullying in recent years.
Jadin Bell, the 15-year-old from La Grande, Oregon, whose physical and online persecution by his jock classmates prompted the title character’s walk across America to call for change, is played here with tremendous appeal by Reid Miller in what deserves to be a breakout performance.
Without resorting to artificial heroics or speechy grandstanding, the script paints Jadin as a portrait in everyday courage. He’s a kid who knows exactly who he is and refuses to apologize for it, coming out in an environment where the odds of acceptance are stacked against him, even joining the cheerleading squad and daring to dream of romance with closeted football team running back Chance (Igby Rigney). Miller has a luminous quality, notably in a Halloween costume party scene where he’s decked out in resplendent glam-rock plumage. But it’s precisely his youthful resilience that the kids who hate what he represents seek to extinguish.
While the real Jadin’s experience several years back made national news and became a catalyst for a much-needed conversation, the less you recall about that history going in, the more effective the movie will be. It’s deftly structured with a major reveal around 40 minutes in that changes the meaning of everything that’s come before. The ultimate outcome, drawn from fact, also packs another shock that brings a note of resonant pathos to the conclusion.
A 45-year-old father of two sons, Joe Bell (Wahlberg) has anger issues that have caused a strain in his loving marriage to Lola (Connie Britton) and played their part in Jadin’s difficulties. Months into his walk to his son’s dream destination, New York City, he’s able to express his love for Jadin. Despite being more of a Willie Nelson type, he even joins in on the chorus of “Born This Way,” the pride anthem by his son’s beloved Lady Gaga, and takes a goofy stab at recreating the kid’s cheer routine in a middle-of-nowhere field in the rain. But as Jadin keeps reminding him in his fond but challenging way, Joe’s “tolerance” wasn’t always so evolved. Maybe still isn’t.
Addressing groups at high schools and community centers across the country, Joe advocates love, kindness and accountability that begin at home, with parents needing to embrace their children’s differences. But in the earlier scenes back in Oregon intercut throughout the journey, Joe’s shouty macho manner and short fuse undermine his supposed acceptance of his son’s sexuality. He can’t hide his embarrassment when Jadin and a female friend (Morgan Lily) practice their cheers in the front yard, and he ushers Lola out of the stands rather than keep watching as bigots in the crowd jeer at their son during a football game.
His calls back home to Lola and their other son Joseph (Maxwell Jenkins) infer that Joe’s on a walk of forgiveness and understanding as much as a campaign against homophobia. It becomes apparent early on that a big part of that process will involve learning to forgive himself. Jadin questions what he thinks he’s accomplishing by handing rednecks a card explaining his mission and walking away. “This is America, OK, and they’re Americans,” Joe responds defensively. “They’re entitled to their own opinion.”
A visit from Lola and Joseph on the road only draws out those unresolved conflicts as Joe loses his temper. His wife, worn down by his outbursts and by her own sadness, questions what he’s doing out there. In one of a handful of scenes played with raw feeling and frayed affections by the invaluable Britton, Lola suggests that Joe’s Facebook following and the news coverage that has gained him recognition have failed to change him in ways that really matter. Jenkins, too, has some poignant moments, both as Joseph shows support for his brother and navigates his own difficulties with his dad.
The most powerful scenes are back in Oregon, revealing the escalation of hostility endured by Jadin in hate texts and social media messages threatening violence, and then in traumatizing incidents at school, led by sneering jock Boyd (Blaine Maye).
After one especially ugly experience, Jadin and his parents see a school counselor (Cassie Beck), whose suggestions to change schools or try therapy don’t help. While not condoning the bullies’ actions, she explains that the high school student body is a reflection of the community’s values, and a formal complaint against the offenders might cause more trouble than it’s worth in a small town like theirs.
The reality of this situation for countless kids across America, as well as their parents, will hit hard. The measured approach with which the writers, Green and editor Mark Sanger parcel out fragments of Jadin’s increasing isolation and despair heightens the wrenching impact without melodrama. Similar judicious use is made of Antonio Pinto’s subdued score, with the melancholy mood amplified by singer-songwriter Daniel Tashian’s gentle, acoustic guitar-backed folk-rock vocals.
On the surface, this seems an entirely different kind of movie from director Green’s assured 2018 debut Monsters and Men, a quiet powerhouse that he also wrote. Threading together events virtually ripped from the headlines, it showed the simmering powder keg of racial tensions that have continued to build to the current moment of resurgent activism in the Black Lives Matter movement. Green’s grasp of this tender, family-focused story shows equal restraint and compassion, and mastery of a tricky structure.
Likewise, the brownstones and housing projects of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in the earlier film couldn’t be further away from the wide-open heartland spaces of Good Joe Bell. But cinematographer Jacques Jouffret — switching gears from his work on the Purge franchise or the more routine Wahlberg vehicle, Mile 22 — makes the beautifully shot physical environment no less integral to the story, the endless roads allowing no place to hide from scalding self-reflection.
It’s impossible to watch Wahlberg’s performance as this burdened man, still grappling with his shortcomings as a human being, without taking into account the actor’s own very public reckoning with the hate crimes of his past. My feelings on whether he has a right to be pardoned have no place in a film review. But with his scraggly beard and haunted eyes, there’s a palpable sense here of a man who is suffering and hungering for redemption.
Ossana and McMurtry’s screenplay in one or two instances drifts into teachable moments, such as Joe’s exchange at a gay bar with a local who talks about the damage wrought by his church’s rejection. But then there are lovely organic moments of illumination such as Joe’s encounter, well into his journey, with a sheriff whose warmth and understanding are fueled by his own troubled experience as the parent of a gay son. In this small but cathartic role, Gary Sinise shows what a great actor can do merely by listening.
In a movie whose protagonist is stymied by his own inarticulacy, both in his stilted attempts at public speaking and in his private soul-searching, the sympathetic ear of a stranger provides healing emotional release.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Production companies: Stay Gold Pictures, Nine Stories, VisionChaos, Parliament of Owls, Closest to the Hole, Leverage Entertainment
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton, Maxwell Jenkins, Gary Sinise, Igby Rigney, Morgan Lily, Blaine Maye, Scout Smith, Cassie Beck
Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Screenwriter: Diana Ossana, Larry McMurtry
Producers: Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Riva Marker, Eva Maria Daniels, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Ryan W. Ahrens, Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson
Executive producers: Jill Ahrens, Ben Renzo, Derrick Brooks, Paris Kassidokostas-Latsis, Terry Dougas, Jean-Luc De Fanti, Jake Gyllenhaal, Diana Ossana, Larry McMurtry, Peter Pastorelli, Uwe R. Feuersenger
Director of photography: Jacques Jouffret
Production designer: Kelly McGehee
Costume designer: Susan Matheson
Music: Antonio Pinto
Editor: Mark Sanger
Casting: Avy Kaufman
Sales: Endeavor Content
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