Good Joe Bell star Mark Wahlberg infamously declined Brokeback Mountain, saying he was “creeped out” by its details of gay life. However, doing a line-by-line audit of Wahlberg’s filmography isn’t productive. He’s doing this film now, and Good Joe Bell is proof that minds can change. Ironically, it’s the latest film from Brokeback Mountain writers Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry. Wahlberg is admittedly better suited to the role of Joe Bell than he would be Ennis or Jack. The film sees him as a conservative father who confronts the consequences of his homophobia. Inspired by a true story, Wahlberg plays the activist who walked across America with a message for inclusion. If Wahlberg’s past comments haunt Good Joe Bell, he walks comfortably in his character’s shoes while atoning.
Bell walks alongside his son, Jadin (Reid Miller) on a campaign to end the bullying of LGBTQ teens. He talks to students about how Jadin struggled as an out-and-proud teen in their football-loving small town. The father-son duo has a warm rapport. Joe Bell seems like the image of an open and accepting dad. He does, that is, until Jadin challenges him. Apparently, Joe Bell then didn’t quite talk like Joe Bell now.
Ossana and McMurtry’s script offers flashbacks of Jadin’s life in their small Oregon town. His enthusiasm for cheerleading becomes a source of shame for Joe. The father won’t even defend his son when onlookers jeer him at a game. He won’t even associate himself with Jadin and leaves, his head tucked down, as his son stands strong on the field alone.
The film is most effective in these flashback scenes. Miller proves the true breakout star of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. His radiant turn as Jadin steals the film from Wahlberg, appropriately honouring the life of the teen who is the film’s heart. When Jadin gets his first taste of love, Miller is poignantly hopeful. One really feels the comforting relief that Jadin finds among his friends, which make the actor’s final scenes especially heartbreaking.
Similarly, Miller and Wahlberg have excellent chemistry. Whether belting out Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” on a dusty highway or confronting Joe’s thinly veiled shame, they emphasize the love lost. Wahlberg allows himself to be vulnerable in ways he hasn’t before. There’s a lot going on with Wahlberg’s presence in Good Joe Bell, and he seems stronger because of it. As Jadin’s mother Lola, Connie Britton is quietly devastating as a parent encumbered by grief and loneliness.
Good Joe Bell isn’t about the hell that Jadin faces, but rather the costs of such intolerance. A major plot twist reframes the story roughly one-third of the way through the film. The turn might prove too emotionally manipulative for some viewers and deeply effective for others. However, it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) signals the shift appropriately. Note the clothes that Jadin never seems to sully and the silence he keeps while Joe talks.
Good Joe Bell Is a Film for Allies
Jadin’s absence throughout the film is significant. Whether the twist makes or breaks the film for viewers, both sides can read it clearly. Good Joe Bell isn’t a film for boys like Jadin. It’s for people like Joe Bell. The film gradually abandons Jadin in favour of his father’s atonement. Joe Bell’s heroism is well earned, though, especially because Wahlberg’s performance effectively conveys the weight of staying in one’s comfort zone while others suffer in silence.
The film is earnest in its intentions, however, while providing a cathartic drama for straight audiences. The Jadins in the room are more likely to find comfort in films like Summer of 85 and Call Me By Your Name, but their parents need movies too. Good Joe Bell is an accessible tool to help parents, or conservative audiences, become better allies. It’s an invitation for empathy and understanding. One wishes that the scribes of Brokeback Mountain offered more than a baby step, but it’s a step forward nevertheless.
Good Joe Bell premiered at TIFF 2020.