Joe Bell (2020)


When I first saw the trailer for Joe Bell, I thought to myself, “What kind of hetero nonsense is this?” It told too much of the story: a young gay man kills himself, and his father feels really bad about it. I joked that the real title should be A is for Ally and just assumed that it would be a movie that would make my eyes roll. But oh, dear reader, I was wrong. This movie pissed me the fuck off.

Based on a true story, Joe Bell (Mr. Marky Mark Wahlberg) is walking from Oregon to New York in honor of his dead son, although the movie tries to hide the reason by having the ghost and/or memory of the son Jadin (Reid Miller) on the road with him. But it’s super obvious what’s really going on, even if the trailer didn’t give it all away. On the road, Joe gives the most uninspiring speeches that bullying someone for being different is wrong. Back home, his wife Lola (Connie Britton) and surviving son are conflicted: on one hand, their father/husband leaving for 6 months on a self-imposed act of penance is rough, but on the other hand they don’t have to suffer his aggressive nature. But actually they still do, as shown when the family meets up with him on the road and he nearly hits his son for peeing on the toilet seat. Throughout this we see in flashback the last days of Jaden before he took his own life and how his dad was just barely accepting of his son: Joe let him join the cheerleading squad, but didn’t want him to practice in the front yard because what would the neighbors think? In the end Joe realizes he was a shitty father and apologizes to the spirit of Jadin. Then he’s hit by a car and dies. Based on a true story and all that.

One especially aggravating part comes right after the big moment where Joe realized he was a shitty father. He stands in front of a school, prepared to give another speech about the harms of bullying, when he sees his dead son in the crowd smiling at him. He’s back on the right track, doing something Jadin would be proud of. So with a renewed feeling he starts the speech… and then we cut away. Are you kidding me? This had the potential to be an actually moving moment–especially compared to the garbage he was shilling out earlier–and you cut it? If you thought that was a good decision, you’re wrong!

I will say that everyone outside of Wahlberg were fine actors. Jadin was likable, Connie Britton was great, and I even felt a little tug at my heartstrings when a random sheriff played by Gary Sinise realizes while talking to Joe that it’s entirely likely that his own gay son probably considered suicide at one point. I mean, yeah, gay people seriously consider suicide three times the rate of heterosexuals, and that comes from the CDC. But I couldn’t give a shit about Joe. He’s the poster child of toxic masculinity, which is actually great casting getting Mark “I didn’t blind that Vietnamese man because he had lost his eye before I attacked him” Wahlberg. I just can’t get behind someone whose entire character arc is learning to say “sorry”–something small children learn with little fanfare–and then not apology to the people he’s hurt who are still alive. The movie even has him leave a message with his wife before he dies, and he never apologize for his behavior. Or his aggression. Or him abandoning his family to deal with grief in his own way, leaving his family more fractured than before. I certainly hope the real Joe Bell wasn’t as big a piece of shit as the movie version was.

This movie was not made for me. It’s not for queer people in general. In theory it’s for intolerant adults as a way to change their minds, but the movie has an argument against that idea: early on, Joe overhears some homophobes in a bar, gives them his card detailing what he’s doing and why, and walks out. The spirit of Jadin chastises him, saying the people who need to hear his message are the ones who wouldn’t come to hear it. So then, who is the movie really for?

I say it was made for straight parents to watch and think, “I too have a gay son! I should remind him how much I love him!” It’s a gay film that killed off the gay character before the story began and only has him around as a memory. It’s the story of a man learning to say “sorry,” but not to his still living and beleaguered family members. It’s so self-congratulatory that it borders on disgusting. Man, you’d almost think that the heterosexual writers–the same people behind Brokeback Mountain–didn’t fully comprehend how to tell a proper gay story!

Yeah, I’m saying Academy Award winning film Brokeback Mountain doesn’t hold up. Fight me.

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3 thoughts on “Joe Bell (2020)

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