Joe Bell

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Mark Wahlberg not only plays a bully on the big screen, he was one in real life. (Google “Mark Wahlberg 1988 assault.”) The history adds to this choice of project an unheralded level of discomfort. In the role of grieving father, Wahlberg is a paragon of nothing new. He could have saved us a lot of time by opening the picture with the intertitle: “I’m sorry for what I did, and here’s a glorified Hallmark Movie to prove it.” Joe Bell (Wahlberg) decides to turn the bullying his gay son Jadin (Reid Miller) experiences into a teachable moment. With nothing more than a cooler strapped to a pushcart, father and son embark on a cross-country trek from Oregon to New York City to spread the message of anti-bullying far and wide. Joe turns his son’s personal tragedy into a motivational speech tour, each appearance closing with a plug to follow him on Facebook. It’s also a bonding journey in which Jadin is constantly pointing out Joe’s penchant for hypocrisy. He calls Joe out for not practicing what he preaches when it comes to fisticuffs as an answer. And Joe revels in calling Jadin’s attention to the fact he’s taking the hike in his son’s name when, as we will soon learn, he’s walking for (and by) himself. They stop at a Utah diner where, as per custom, Joe hands out cards that draw attention to the cause. Joe preaches a brief message of inclusion, much to the disgust of a couple of vocal bigots. Rather than stand up for his son, Joe heads for the parking lot, where Jadin reminds him, “The people that come to your talks aren’t the issue, they are.” The same can be said of the film’s appeal. It will play to an audience of converts; those who would truly benefit from watching it will no doubt avoid it like they do the covid vaccine. Miller’s breakthrough performance has an elevating effect, but when Jadin goes, so does the movie. (2020) — Scott Marks

Rated R | 1 hour, 33 minutes
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