It’s time for BOATS (Based On A True Story): Joe Bell, now on Amazon Prime, portrays Mark Wahlberg as an abusive man who pays homage to his son as he leaves his tiny New York, Oregon home. Harassment awareness. This is an open and honest film by Reynaldo Marcus Green (who took a huge step forward with his next film, King Richard) and has all the characteristics of a tear film.
But the words “Mark Wahlberg” and “tears” sure sound like oil and water, right?
MAY 2013: Joe Bell (Wahlberg) hauls it across Idaho pushing a tricycle full of gears. One foot at a time. We saw him take the stage in a high school auditorium to talk about tolerance and bullying. And it quickly became apparent that public speaking was not his forte.
He was open and very aggressive, and his speech didn’t take long. His son Jadin (Reed Miller) is in the audience. They walked down the street together, and Jadin called her parents to state that the reception “started at home”. It didn’t happen at Jadin’s, which made Joe think.
Retrospective: nine months earlier. Joe is trying to watch a football game on his new TV. When Jadin pulls him aside and tearfully reveals he is gay. “She’ll be fine on her own,” Joe said before returning to the couch. Joe/Jaden’s mother, Lola (Connie Britton), hugs Jadin, and then Joe yells at her to bring her a beer.
He let go and went to the fridge. Joe Bell is a red-blooded heteros*xual who once taught Jadin to fight. But Jadin is adamant that she can’t go against the whole school. The football brothers are abusing him. It’s ironic that Jadin is in the cheerleading – and kissing the star walking back.
The storyline jumps back and forth in time, from Joe out and about. Where he gets attention on the social media and also sings Lady Gaga songs with Jadin, back to Oregon, where the kid keeps directing and Joe doesn’t listen well. What one does must be said. There is one gruesome scene in the boys’ locker room and another with the school clerk who doesn’t want to do anything.
There is a stage in the roadside restaurant:
Joe hears some red people spewing gay insults and wonders if and how he should fight it. There is an installation. (Of course, there is an installation). And then there are the storytelling tricks, similar to the ones you’ve seen before. And which, of course, seem redundant here, but they’re there anyway.
Joe Bell is a seemingly flawless drama that evokes bittersweet moments but never goes beyond the average tearful melodrama. Of course, towels have their place, but the bottleneck for an empathetic heart is most likely Wahlberg, who makes enough tones to make the character soft, fuzzy, and a little flat.
His Joe Bell is on a journey to change and understand and forgive (and patience, care and empathy) and leave anger, fear, and ignorance behind. I understand that the protagonist seeks a little clarity, but his inner conflict remains opaque, trapped behind ordinary people’s stereotypical openness and loud stereotypical voices.
Miller-focused scenes and nuanced performances suggest the potential for more dramatic impact, and sometimes he gets the best of Wahlberg (like hanging out with drag queens disguised as Cher and Dolly Parton).
Miller is in the middle of the trick above, a twist at the end of Act One that I won’t reveal, though I guess you’ll understand before that happens. Next, the hero is kicked out of Jadin, and all that’s left is lazy and determined Wahlberg, who does everything we expect from such a hero. That doesn’t seem enough.
Joe Bell was serious about his intentions. He offers some solid, less-manipulative scenes, and his impassioned pleas for kindness to cruelty are undeniable. But all that is not enough to make it memorable or even turn into a serene cry.