After the suicide of his son, a man embarks on a walk across America to spread a message against bullying and intolerance. The true story of Joe and Jadin Bell comes to life on the big screen and digital editor Dan Jensen shares his thoughts on it.
*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses suicide
JOE BELL tells the true story of a father who embarked on a walk across America, from Oregon to New York, in 2013 campaigning against bullying after his teenage son took his own life. Jadin Bell was a 15-year-old high school student who was constantly tormented and assaulted simply because he was gay. There’s a powerful message within the film’s narrative that is still important today.
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, the film stars Mark Wahlberg as Joe Bell along with Reid Miller as Jadin. Both deliver stellar performances, with Reid more than competent in his breakout role against a veteran like Wahlberg. Both feel completely authentic, which is crucial in a non-fictional story. Rounding out the main cast are Connie Britton as Lola, Joe’s wife, and Gary Sinise has a small role as a police sheriff who becomes an important figure in Joe's tale.
The story is told in a non-linear fashion, with the tragedy of Jadin’s life running alongside Joe’s quest for redemption. We all know that prejudice and intolerance exist, but it doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking to see it played out on screen. The film does a fine job of showing us what a cruel world Jadin lived in and how no one understood just what he was going through. Friends weren’t there for him in times of need and one scene in which Jadin makes a complaint to the school principal against bullies, only to be told nothing could be done as it would tarnish the school’s reputation, is nothing short of rage-inducing.
Most of the scenes in which Joe treks across the states feature Jadin with him, as a figment of his imagination. At first, it seems like a novel storytelling device until you realise that the man is so wracked with guilt that he can’t shake the ghost of his son. But this is one of the movie’s biggest flaws as in portraying Joe’s journey to redeem himself and make up for his mistakes as a father, it somewhat loses the impact of one man trying to change the world. It focuses more on the character of Joe rather than the message it’s trying to tell.
Joe’s character arc never feels developed enough by the film’s end. His own life was tragically cut short while on his journey, but through the course of the film, it doesn’t feel like he goes through enough of a change. It’s a priority in any good screenplay to have your characters come out the other side as different people, having learnt something valuable. But in one scene in particular where Joe’s family comes to stay with him for a night, it’s revealed that he is still capable of being a rather cruel person. His struggle to improve himself needed better resolution. Perhaps that's just how he was in real life, but there are some elements that were altered for dramatic purposes so it might have made for a better film if Joe's character had gone through more of a change.
Obviously from the title, the film is about the father. This is a man trying to come to terms with his own issues of homophobia and the guilt he carries for not having done enough to save his own son. It’s handled well, but the balance of this one man’s story and the wider (more important) message feels confused.
Another major area in which the film fails is its lack of emotional weight. A movie like this, telling a tragic story with a powerful message, should be an absolute tear-jerker. It should make the audience walk out feeling inspired to make a difference. Sadly, Joe Bell doesn’t offer much more than a telling of events. Sure, it does it well – the film is shot and edited nicely, it has a terrific soundtrack and the non-linear story device works effectively – but Jadin’s story deserved better. There are moments in the film that are quite stirring, but there’s not enough overall depth to really make a difference.
That’s not to say it’s a bad film by any means and its heart is most definitely in the right place. At least it raises awareness of this tragic story, one that deserves to be more widely known. Despite the events taking place in 2013, it’s evident that we still have a long way to go in terms of tolerance. Hopefully, Joe Bell might be able to change the way some people think, start the right conversations or even help save some lives.
Joe Bell is now showing in cinemas across Australia.
Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636.
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