By and large, audiences don’t go to the movies to watch unprepossessing people engage in tedious pursuits — however noble or well-intentioned. And I have seen few cinematic sights more tedious this year than Mark Wahlberg trudging across America as the title character of “Joe Bell,” a droopy drama with its feet on the blacktop and its heart set on redemption.
Earnestly directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, the movie dramatizes the true story of Joe, an Oregon mill worker who decides to walk toward New York City in honor of his gay son, Jadin (Reid Miller). Joe’s mission is to raise awareness about the perils of bullying, which Jadin, 15, endured daily at the hands of cruel classmates before ending his own life. As presented here, though (the screenplay is by Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry), the father’s real mission is atonement.
Flashbacks reveal Joe to be a volatile, conservative father who’s displeased by Jadin’s orientation — and his lone-male visibility on the cheerleading squad — without being openly homophobic. (He’s also the kind of man who buys a big-screen TV while his patient wife — played by a deglamorized Connie Britton — waits for a new washing machine.) Once Joe is on the road, however, the movie turns Jadin into a sentimental contrivance, a tool to illustrate his father’s transformation from short-fused insensitive to self-punishing penitent.
Grim and well-acted, “Joe Bell” is the story of a martyr. Joe’s punishing, monthslong trek, chronicled on Facebook and punctuated by interactions with bigots and sympathizers, is riddled with down-home didacticism.
“It’s hard to stand strong in places where there are more churches than gays,” one stranger tells Joe in a movie that appears far less interested in Jadin’s suffering than his father’s.
Rated R for homophobic slurs and reprehensible behavior. 1 hour 30 minutes. In theaters.