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Review: Mark Wahlberg walks in the guilt-ridden shoes of a despairing parent in ‘Joe Bell’

A teenage boy and his father on the side of a rural highway
Reid Miller, left, and Mark Wahlberg in the movie “Joe Bell.”
(Quantrell D. Colbert / Roadside Attractions)

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The new Mark Wahlberg-starring drama “Joe Bell,” directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, is based on a true story that took place in 2013, when a lumber worker, Joe Bell (Wahlberg), set out to walk from La Grande, Ore., to New York City. His stated goal was to bring awareness to bullying, spurred by the horrific experiences of his teen son, Jadin (Reid Miller), who came out as gay as a young teenager. Initially, Jadin joins his father on the walk, bopping along next to him, singing Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” ribbing his old man, the two sparring with each other about what Joe’s trying to accomplish out on the road.

If you’ve read a single log line for the film or have a familiarity with the real events, you know the twist or, rather, the conceit at play here. Joe is walking across America because his son is dead, a phrase he finally speaks aloud about 30 minutes in to a stricken drag queen in a gay bar somewhere between Idaho and Colorado. Jadin died by suicide because of the extreme bullying and harassment he suffered at the hands of his peers, and now, on the road, Joe toils with what part he played in his son’s life and death.

By all accounts, the real Joe Bell was loving and supportive. But the Joe that Wahlberg plays in “Joe Bell” is tough, gruff and rough around the edges, mercurial, angry and defensive. Even though he frequently tells his wife, Lola (Connie Britton), and kids how much he loves them, this Joe isn’t easy to like. But you root for him anyway, because he continues to put one foot in front of the other, and his breakthrough seems imminent.

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Pushing a cart of supplies while 18-wheelers whiz by leaves him exhausted, but his mind tumbles endlessly through memories. He walks because it gives him something to do while his mind cycles through guilt, shame and despair. He walks to make his son’s death matter, to make sense in some way. He walks to leave the mark of Jadin’s death on his body and on the world.

There are moments in “Joe Bell” when you wish the story opened up beyond Joe’s blinkered point of view, but it is a laser-focused piece. Though it sometimes feels treacly and hackneyed, or even predictable,“Joe Bell” resists expectation, and where this true story ends up is far more poignant and devastating than any work of fiction could be.

The script, by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, contains a rough-hewn poetry, leaving little to the imagination; everything that needs to be is said, and a folksy country soundtrack underlines the woeful tone of this modern Western fable. Green applies a naturalistic visual style; the camera (the cinematographer is Jacques Jouffret) regards the crags of Wahlberg’s dusty, tanned visage like the stark landscapes that surround him. In some of the more delicate moments, Green wisely employs restraint, so it rarely feels exploitative or manipulative.

“Joe Bell” is a tale of emotional redemption for a man who relearns what it means to “be a man,” and his moments of triumph are the quietest ones, over a humble meal with a sheriff (Gary Sinise) or in challenging family conversations. As Joe struggles to find purpose in his walk, it becomes clear that it’s not about awareness but simply an expression of a father’s purest love. For all the progress that’s been made for equality and tolerance, what’s most important is that kids feel not just accepted, but loved, for exactly who they are.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

‘Joe Bell’

Rated: R, for language including offensive slurs, some disturbing material and teen partying.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Playing: Starts July 23 in general release


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