“Joe Bell” feels like an incomplete work of art. It’s like one of those paintings where the artist has beautifully rendered the top half with color and depth, but the bottom half remains mere sketches on canvas.
This might be a creative choice based on the details of the true story it is telling, but either way, the movie feels lacking because of it.
Joe Bell was a real person who gained notoriety for setting off for a walk across the United States from his small hometown in Oregon on a campaign to bring awareness to bullying after his son Jadin was viscously bullied in high school for being gay.
Joe is played by Mark Wahlberg at his working-class best. We learn that while Joe was accepting of his son’s sexuality, he was reluctant to defend him against the backwards attitudes of their neighbors.
Reid Miller plays Jadin in a breakout performance where in his limited screen time shows a bright spirit systematically crushed by the cruelty of those around him.
In fact the whole movie is well acted, with a shout-out to Connie Britton who, as Joe’s wife Lola, proves once again that she is a hall-of-famer when it comes to portraying put-upon women barely holding it together.
The movie is also beautifully filmed by director Reinaldo Marcus Green who lingers on the wonder of the American West while Joe traverses the highways and byways, pushing his cart of supplies.
Maybe the most remarkable thing about “Joe Bell” is that it marks the final screenplay of Larry McMurtry who passed away earlier this year. Here he is reunited with Diana Ossana, the co-writer with whom he shares an Oscar for “Brokeback Mountain.”
But aside from documenting the horrors of bullying, “Joe Bell” doesn’t portray Joe’s journey as doing much of anything other than relieving some of Joe’s guilt at not doing more to help his son.
“Joe Bell” is a very well-made chunk of a movie, but unfortunately, like those unfinished paintings, it’s hard not to concentrate on what’s not there.
“Joe Bell” is rated R for language including offensive slurs, some disturbing material and teen partying.