There are good movies, there are bad movies, and then there is “Good Joe Bell,” a uniquely terrible treatment of an important topic — broadly described as “inclusivity” and “tolerance” by the film’s wild-eyed protagonist (Mark Wahlberg) — whose hubristic title is the first clue that it’s not playing fair. Joe Bell was a man like any other, who attempted to turn tragedy into a teaching moment. The movie has little to add to a story that got some local and national media attention and that, frankly, lends itself better to a 90-second TV news brief than a feature-length film.
“I mean, everybody’s against bullying, aren’t they?” Joe Bell asks his weary wife (Connie Britton) before setting off on a cross-country campaign for “change.” If they were, Bell wouldn’t need to make this trek, America wouldn’t have elected a bully as president (that happened three years after the film takes place, in 2013), and his first lady wouldn’t have a cause to crusade against. “Good Joe Bell” is about as eloquent as Melania Trump on the subject, and it’s equally painful to watch Wahlberg get up in front of high school auditoriums to deliver awkward platitudes on acceptance.
The film, which must have looked great on paper (for starters, it reunites the screenwriting duo of Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry 15 years after “Brokeback Mountain”), amounts to a heavy-handed lecture on homophobia. Whereas understatement and subtlety were the tools of their historic 2005 film, this one is emotionally manipulative in the extreme, assuming audiences are already on board with its message, and that all would appreciate a good cry over a case in which exclusion and intolerance proved fatal.
Wahlberg usually has a pretty good eye for fact-based material (“Lone Survivor,” “Patriots Day,” “Deepwater Horizon”), although the actor’s a lot more effective when things are blowing up around him. Here, without dialing down his trademark breathlessness one bit, he plays a man who commits to walking from his hometown of La Grange, Ore., to New York City, where his teenage son Jadin (Reid Miller) dreamed of living one day. Jadin’s there every step of the way, cheering him on and challenging his dad to do a better job of convincing people to be more accepting. Except — here comes the spoiler no responsible review can avoid — Jadin is dead. In 2013, he hanged himself on an elementary school playground after the bullying became too much. In real life, his suicide was horrible. Someone spotted him still alive, and the young man was rushed to the hospital, where he languished on life support for two more weeks.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green waits until halfway through the movie to reveal this key piece of information, and he does it in a scene where Joe Bell, attending drag night in a gay bar on behalf of a son who never could, has just been told, “This place is like a church.” Personal aside: As a gay man who’s “prostrated himself” a few times at New York’s Limelight (a decadent Sunday-night dance party held in a converted Episcopal cathedral), I can tell you, gay clubs are nothing like a church. Homosexuality is about sexuality, not just “who you love,” as disingenuous films designed to sway family-values voters (e.g., “Milk”) keep insisting, and LGBT acceptance depends on confronting what makes conservative people so uncomfortable about behavior that doesn’t concern them.
Hardly anything Joe Bell says in “Good Joe Bell” suggests that he understood his son in the slightest, and it’s not clear that the filmmakers do either. To them, Good Jadin Bell was a saintly teenager who had the courage to be himself — who joined the school’s otherwise-all-girl cheer squad and even caught the eye of a closeted football player (Igby Rigney) — unfairly harassed by the Bad Kids in Town, who beat him up in the locker room and posted things like “just do us all a favor. OFF URSELF” on his profile. They give us Jadin Bell, the victim, not Jadin Bell, the three-dimensional human being. And while I understand that the movie is speaking to parents (like the Gary Sinise character who appears near the end), not gay teens, it’s insulting to watch a film that seems to assume that queer youth are all teetering on the cusp of suicide if pushed too far.
Yes, Americans need to be told that bullying is not OK. But neither is suicide, and this movie suggests that martyring oneself can send a message. The way it’s presented, Jadin’s public told-you-so statement to the bullies (basically, “You win — I’ll off myself”) is a lot clearer than whatever his dad is ranting about most of the time. Apparently no one here has heard “It gets better,” the stay-strong mantra that a robust real-world coalition of LGBT survivors and allies have devised for such tough situations. “Good Joe Bell” feels as if it were made by straight people for straight people, in which case, there are countless better options (from “Boy Erased” to this year’s “Stage Mother”) for that crowd.
Granted, “Good Joe Bell” could be worse. Ossana and McMurtry might have chosen to reinvent Joe Bell as a rousing orator, putting eloquent speeches in the guy’s mouth. It’s actually more relatable to realize that he’s not: He’s just a grieving dad with a short temper, doing his best to cope with his loss — although Wahlberg was the wrong actor to play a man fumbling between anger and inadequacy. Green, a promising young director on the basis of “Monsters and Men,” is mismatched to the material, although he can be commended for not grabbing at every opportunity to jerk tears. Even so, he sure seems committed to the idea that a cathartic cry will solve the problem. A movie like this would be a good start, if this were 1980. A decade and a half after “Brokeback Mountain,” however, it feels like a huge step backward.