Joe Bell: Mark Wahlberg’s anti-bullying Oscars bid soured by flawed storytelling

Joe Bell (M, 93mins) Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green ***

Currently receiving plaudits for his tennis superdad biopic King Richard (due in Kiwi cinemas next month), director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s last project has finally emerged after a year-long hibernation.

Initially debuting at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, Good Joe Bell (as it was then called) was touted as a hot awards season prospect and a rare “serious” role for Hollywood action man Mark Wahlberg.

But, despite a US$20m distribution deal, a lukewarm reception essentially scuppered any plans for a splashy release.

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In truth, this biopic-cum-road-movie has a compelling anti-bullying tale to tell, and a bearded Wahlberg certainly gives his all, but it’s undermined by a fractured narrative that telegraphs its twist far too early, a move that also results in robbing what could have been a truly rage- and tear-inducing drama of its full emotional impact.

It’s not that it is disastrous, it just feels disappointingly clunky from the screenwriting team (Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, in his final effort before his death in March) that gave the world the magnificent Brokeback Mountain.

Mark Wahlberg and Reid Miller play father and son in Joe Bell.


Mark Wahlberg and Reid Miller play father and son in Joe Bell.

When we first meet Wahlberg’s eponymous Oregonian, he’s suffering from severe blisters, the result of walking “across America” promoting tolerance via speaking engagements in high schools in every town he visits.

Inspired by his 15-year-old son Jadin (an impressive Reid Miller), who keep his spirits lifted on the arduous journey, he regales audiences with his own experiences on how bullying can have a devastating effect. It’s a passionate plea that isn’t always met with sympathy, or the “positive” response that Joe might have hoped, something that only brings home how he previously failed his son.

Sure when Jadin came out, Joe was initially supportive, even when he joined the cheerleading team, although he wasn’t that keen on him practising in the front yard. But when the bullying started, Joe’s insistence that Jadin needed to learn how to defend himself, rather than insisting the school and other authorities deal with the ongoing harassment, weighs heavily on his increasingly distressed offspring.

Joe Bell is the based-on-real-life story of a man who attempted to walk “across America”, while promoting tolerance in every town he visited.


Joe Bell is the based-on-real-life story of a man who attempted to walk “across America”, while promoting tolerance in every town he visited.

Joe Bell is very much a story of regret and redemption, but it’s saddled to a storytelling device that it neither truly fully embraces, or does a good job of concealing (even if it is reasonably well-executed).

It’s a pity because Wahlberg’s scenes with both Miller and Gary Sinise (playing a small-town Sheriff and adding to the central conceit’s Forrest Gump vibe) are both absorbing and cathartic, and his serious facial fuzz and perma-furrowed brow are reflective of what feels like full commitment to bringing the character to life.

If you can get past the narrative meddling that muddles the message, Joe Bell might just teach you a thing or two.

Joe Bell is now available to rent on Neon, GooglePlay, Academy OnDemand and iTunes.

Where to get help

  • 1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 to talk to a trained counsellor.

  • Anxiety New Zealand 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)

  • 0800 111 757 or text 4202

  • Lifeline 0800 543 354

  • Mental Health Foundation 09 623 4812, click here to access its free resource and information service.

  • Rural Support Trust 0800 787 254

  • Samaritans 0800 726 666

  • Suicide Crisis Helpline 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

  • Yellow Brick Road 0800 732 825

  • Web chat, email chat or free text 5626

  • What’s Up 0800 942 8787 (for 5 to 18-year-olds). Phone counselling available Monday-Friday, noon-11pm and weekends, 3pm-11pm. Online chat is available 3pm-10pm daily.

  • Youthline 0800 376 633, free text 234, email [email protected], or find online chat and other support options here.

  • If it is an emergency, click here to find the number for your local crisis assessment team.

  • In a life-threatening situation, call 111.

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