[Screen It]


(2021) (Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller) (R)

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Drama: A man walks across America to spread the word about bullying and how it affected his teenage son.

Having seen first-hand what it did to his teenage son, Jadin (REID MILLER), Joe Bell (MARK WAHLBERG) is now walking across America to raise awareness about bullying. With his wife, Lola (CONNIE BRITTON), and other son, Joseph (MAXWELL JENKINS), still back home, Joe is on his way to New York City from Oregon.

And he's accompanied in a special way by Jadin, with the two seemingly bonding in ways they never did in the past. As we see flashbacks to Jadin coming out in high school and the effects that bullying had on him, Joe must contend with the fact that he should have handled things better than he did.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10

When you think about it, humans are both incredibly evolved ahead of other primates but also still subject to similar instinctual behaviors hardwired into our systems. Thus, while most -- but not all -- of us don't need to literally fight for territory, food, or mates, the need to dominate others physically and/or mentally still resides in some of us.

And beyond the rich desiring to get richer and despots wanting to conquer other nations, most of that manifests itself in the form of bullying. That sort of behavior has probably been around since the stone age, but it's evolved into certain kids getting a perverse power play gratification by making others feel inferior, weak, or not worthy of existing.

The advent and spread of social media have amplified that to terrifying extents as the bullied now seemingly can't escape the reach of those bullying them. All of which leads to mental health crises, including depression and suicide. In the new movie "Joe Bell" -- which's inspired by real-life events -- the 45-year-old titular character (played by Mark Wahlberg) has decided to walk across America to raise awareness about the problem.

And that stems from what his 15-year-old son, Jadin (Reid Miller), went through in the past, especially after coming out as gay. Joe's initial reaction was telling his boy to fight back or keep quiet about such things. Not surprisingly, that went over about as well as telling the boy and his female friend to practice their school cheerleading in the backyard where it would be less likely observed by others.

The two discuss that and more as they trek along rural roads and Joe awkwardly speaks to small groups of young people. In doing so, the father and son seemingly bond more than they ever did in the past, but there's a secret that screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana and director Reinaldo Marcus Green are initially withholding from us.

I'm not sure if they intended that to be a sort of M. Night Shyamalan sort of reveal or simply used it for dramatic effect realizing most viewers would figure it out, but I guessed the "surprise" right from the get-go (not that I'm some sort of brilliant cinematic sleuth, it's just I've seen so many movies that it was fairly easy to figure out where the story was going.

The rest involves the man coming to grips with the fact that he should have and could have been a more supportive father back at those moments, and that he callously made his son's coming out more about him (and being embarrassed about it) than his son (who just needed love and support). That nicely plays out when Joe meets a sheriff (Gary Sinise) who similarly had to contend with having his boy announce that he was likewise gay.

It all falls into the "it's the journey and not the destination" sort of plot where the protagonist grows due to going through the former, and Wahlberg gives a strong (but not award-worthy) performance in the part, even if he's overshadowed by Miller playing the troubled son.

But for as much as I appreciate the subject matter and themes (particularly as someone who was bullied as a kid, although not for the same reason), the overall offering didn't move me as much as it could have. And things end quite abruptly (mirroring real life), all of which left me feeling unfulfilled. Ending up as just another entry in the ever-growing collection featuring bullying, "Joe Bell" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed July 16, 2021 / Posted July 23, 2021

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