In January 2013, a gay 15-year-old named Jadin Bell, from La Grande, Oregon, hanged himself from a piece of playground equipment and, after being kept on life support for several weeks, died in early February that year. He was a sophomore in high school. He’d dreamed of becoming an artist, of going to New York City for college — of, at the very least, getting the hell out of La Grande. Like many queer teens before him and, it’s painful to say, many since his death, Jadin was subject to intense bullying — mistreatment that became the primary point of order of the expansive news coverage following his death.
The coverage was motivated, in part, by the pained irony that an ostensibly more progressive nation — nudged forward from above by changing (if contested) political policies and more visibly out-and-proud celebrities and from below by a more accepting generation of young people — was still home to tragedies such as these. Much of the coverage inevitably had to confront the ways that bullying, in itself, had also changed, as technology had changed, and social lives — anonymity, access to others, video cameras and messaging apps on every phone — have played into some of our worst instincts. Jadin’s death was a big story, but not a unique one. Why some stories of this stripe loom so large over the public imagination, while others receive little to no attention, is itself complicated.
In Jadin’s case, the second leg of his story may have had something to do with it. Some months after Jadin’s death, Jadin’s father, Joe Bell, decided to walk the country in honor of his son, from his home in La Grande all the way to New York, landing where Jadin once dreamed of living out the rest of his life after high school. And giving talks, campaigning against bullying in schools, at motorcycle rallies, wherever he could, as he traveled. Joe’s following, online and in the local press, grew as he traveled. It was, for him, a journey toward healing — not only over the loss of his son in itself, but over the regrets he had as a father whose son needed him in ways that only became apparent to the elder Bell after his boy’s suicide. This story, too, ended in tragedy. Joe was struck and killed in October 2013 by a tractor trailer whose driver had fallen asleep at the wheel. It happened in eastern Colorado, on a rural two-lane highway. This is as far as Joe got.
Reinaldo Marcus Green’s new film is titled Joe Bell, not Jadin Bell, which maybe tells you something about its scope and intentions — but not everything. By the time the film starts, Joe, played by a grizzled Mark Wahlberg, has already been on the road for some months. Throughout, we’ll see people stop and ask to take his picture, or offer him meals — people who, being that they’re from areas in the stretch between Oregon and Colorado, are testaments to the idea that though much of the country remains committed to bigotry, there are loving, understanding people everywhere. And queer people everywhere — which, for Joe, means that this journey is made all the more morally serious, not because of the lessons he imparts to others, but by the lessons he learns on his journey, the kindness the sprouts up in seemingly unexpected places, out of people cut from the same cloth as Joe.
The real Joe Bell had written, on Facebook: “I miss my son Jadin with all my heart and soul. I know you’re with me on this walk.” Joe Bell takes this idea and, in a way, makes it literal. From the start of the movie there’s a young man at Joe’s side — and it isn’t long before we realize that this young man is Jadin (played here by Reid Miller). What immediately stands out about the pair is their camaraderie. And Jadin’s personality. Before the movie gives us flashbacks to nine months prior, in the stretch leading up to Jadin’s death — with its scenes of bullying, fledgling romance, and familial disappointment — what we get is a snapshot of an ideal. A gay son and his father who can bond over Lady Gaga lyrics. A gay son who sits in on his father’s talks to the public and gets to offer his own critiques, pointing out the ways that Joe has settled into a pattern of preaching to the choir: The people showing up at his talks, particularly once he’s gained notoriety, already know what he’s about, and are already at minimum prepared to hear what he has to say. But what about the random homophobes in biker gear that Joe overhears spouting casual hatred in a diner, or the people — there are many of them — who have nothing to offer Joe but confrontation? These are the people, Jadin’s ghostlike fellow traveler suggests, that need to be reached. These are the people akin to his bullies. Joe had advised his son to stand up for himself in the face of such people. In the wake of Jadin’s death, it’s left to Joe to do the standing up. Will he?
So far, this must sound like a redemption narrative. It is and it isn’t. The film is split nearly in two. It’s dominant strand is a study of Joe’s travels on the road, which are punctuated by the slim bits of contact he still has with the family left back home, particularly his wife Lola (Connie Britton), who has her own frustrations — and whose presence trains us to keep in mind the ways that Joe is, despite this mission, an imperfect man. Green’s film is absolutely attuned to the difficulties of this journey, which are not to be taken casually. The real Joe Bell, as nearly every article on the man took care to point out, had artificial knees; months into his journey, his feet were warped by blisters. The film shows him weathering harsh natural conditions, random bouts of rain, at times bitter cold, and often his setting up shop outdoors to sleep. Green’s camera makes a point of dwarfing Joe in the broad, rural mountainscapes of his journey, the long stretches of road seeming to run toward some distant nowhere, with nothing but gray sky and rocky hillsides for company. It is no wonder his mind is given to imagining that Jadin is with him: This is, as the film depicts it, a despairingly lonely journey, one in which the man’s main company is his own mind.
And in his mind he must be thinking of Jadin’s last days, and of the errors made during that time — starting, as the film does in the first of many flashbacks, with the day Jadin came out to him. It’s a curious coming-out scene, as these things go, in part because what Jadin encounters from his father is not outright, violent rejection, but rejection in the guise of jittery acceptance. Joe doesn’t exactly say in plain terms that he’s OK with Jadin being “different,” but nor does he kick him out of the house, as is the case for many. Joe instead confronts Jadin with a nervous impatience — there’s a game on; he’d rather bury this and move on — and bad advice akin to a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. Sure, he’s OK with it: But also, remember when I tried to teach you boxing? (This is his advice for handling bullies.) Sure, you can join the cheerleading squad, even if you’re the only boy to do so — but please, don’t practice on the front lawn in front of everyone. (What’s Joe going to do during actual football games, in which his son will have to appear in front of everyone?) The coming-out ends on a sour note which, merely by the way the film sets it up and lingers over it, we can discern is a source of shame for Joe. “He knows I love him,” he says to Lola. Then, to Jadin: “I love you. You know that. Are we done here now?”
That’s the other strand of the movie — these flashbacks, these moments. It is the better material for so many reasons, but not least among them is its attempt to reconstruct some sense of Jadin’s life, which even much of the press about Joe and his journey failed, dishearteningly, to do. Much of it is what you’d expect: bullying in the cafeteria and the locker room, a terrifying prank, a meeting with a school counselor in which, it’s clear, the powers that be would almost prefer Jadin transferring schools to actually having a hand in punishing his bullies. But there are the other, softer notes, tactile in their close-ups and quivering intimacy, of Jadin interacting with his closest friends (all of them girls) and of his making eyes at a closeted boy on the football team, later kissing that boy, and, finally, overstepping the boundaries of their relationship by trying to imagine some future for them both that surpasses the hard limits of their quiet, politely bigoted hometown.
Reid Miller’s accomplished performance renders Jadin extraordinary for being so ordinary; smart, sensitive, almost unduly wise, but in the scheme of things normal, which is to say, trying his hardest to be himself despite the risks. He weathers anonymous texts from bullies on his own. He navigates his sense of himself on his own. In concert with the loneliness we’re given of Joe Bell on the road, we’re given a portrait of Jadin that is also lonely — and left with the sense that it didn’t, shouldn’t, have needed to be that way. Someone asks, “Doesn’t it bother you what people say?” Jadin’s response: “Words can’t hurt me. I’m tougher than I look.” The line reads like an easy cliché. But Miller makes you believe it.
Green is working from a script by longtime collaborators Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry. The pair’s last film outing was the script for Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. It won them an Oscar. Brokeback was an adaptation. It had the benefit of taking E. Annie Proulx’s crisp, psychologically condensed short story as its template, a story that used cowboy mythology and our culture’s broadly recognized codes of Western masculinity to its advantage in order to avoid reiterating the obvious. Instead, it burrowed between the husk of known mythology and tradition into a secret, intimate history, a queer history, that for most people can only be imagined. The historical record isn’t silent, but it’s mighty quiet. Joe Bell, based on a true story, faces a different challenge. It’s a reconstruction of two peoples’ lives that, in reading the press coverage on them both after the fact, feels — feels — drawn from reality, not fiction or imagination.
The result of this is a film that risks having more to say about Joe, who became a public figure while alive, than Jadin, whose story only became broadly known after his death. Again, the title tells us something. But the focus on Joe is not as illegitimate or even wrongheaded as it may seem, to many. It’s in the film’s intentions that the questions worth reckoning with, bristling against, start to arise. So much of Joe’s depiction in Joe Bell rides on the physical hardship of his journey — again, a fact drawn from life — that the film’s insistent harping begins to come off as a thesis about its hero. When a kindly cop (played by Gary Sinise) picks Joe up and offers him a meal, going so far as to arrange for him to speak at a pastor’s youth group, Joe accepts — on the condition that the officer drop him off where he’d picked him up. As Joe reiterates, he intends to walk every mile of the way. He must.
When the self-flagellating Christians of yore — those long, groaning processions of men with their whips and bloody backs, so intrinsic to the plagued medieval imagery that persists into the present — took to the streets to cleanse themselves of sin by mortifying the flesh, they did so in the name of earning God’s mercy. Joe Bell is not, or at least not explicitly, a religious picture. But its secular ritual of hardship and holy comeuppance (by way of Jadin’s ghost) feel familiar in their intentions. The ellipses in this film are significant. Curiously curtailed are the speeches Joe gives to packed audiences, in themselves. And the questions Jadin’s ghost poses early in the movie — of Joe’s tendency to avoid the harder battles, failing to confront the homophobes he encounters in the wild in favor of preaching to the choirs of people drawn to his online phenomenon and, thus, plausibly already sympathetic — are never really reconciled by either Joe or the movie. The film’s eye is trained on the inner battle. Its endpoint is a series of internal encounters Joe has with himself, spurred in part by conversations with others. “It’s hard to stand strong in places where there are more churches than there are gays,” a man tending a gay bar tells Joe after sharing his own coming-out story. This inspires a rant from Joe: about his son being shamed at a church, about the hypocrisy of the Church — Catholic priests being shuttled from parish to parish come up — and about his son’s humiliation. What immediately follows: a scene of Joe weathering dreary, rainy conditions, his mortal suffering, his oncoming cold, the pressures he feels from home.
By the time we get to the climax of Jadin’s own crisis and the run-up to his suicide, Joe’s own suffering — not only the physical torments of his journey, but the moral demands he’s inflicted on himself — has by and large run its course, becoming subject to increasingly heightened reiteration. The moments leading up to his son‘s then proceed to rain down in a quick, anxious, melodramatic cascade of painful snippets, including more bullying at school. We are alternately made more fully aware of both Jadin’s plight and of Joe’s pain in the present, his need to reconcile his own feelings and failures brushing against the failures of loved one’s that Jadin encounters in his final moments. In concert with this, in the scenes that immediately follow Jadin’s suicide, what we’re given is a tour of Joe’s grief: his inability to get out of bed, a moment of him sitting in his truck, in the rain, with a gun. Soon after that, suddenly able to get out of bed (after what, in real life, actually amounted to a months-long bout of depression), Joe runs downstairs at breakfast time and startles his family with his idea for the cross-country walk. It’s an odd moment — strange for the sudden fervor with which Joe feels duty-bound to acknowledge the travails of his son, stranger still for reminding us that this man is played by Wahlberg, which is to say, played with a level of boyish excitability that in context risks reducing it all to something far less substantial than what it is. It comes off like a stroke of divine, compassionate genius, a veritable lightbulb moment from on high. “Lola,” he tries to reassure his wife, “I’ll talk to everybody along the way. Anybody who’ll listen. About bullying. About the damage it did, about our boy. I’m doing this for Jadin, Lola. It’s what he’d want me to do. I know it is.”
Is it what Jadin wants? There’s of course much to be said for a parent knowing their child better than anyone else, certainly anyone only watching a movie about the pair, can know. But the premise of Joe’s journey is also, adamantly, a study of what he failed to know — or rather, what he failed to do. In the midst of such confusion, failure, and regret, it is easy to overstate what the premise otherwise undermines: the mere idea of Joe knowing what Jadin “wants.” His characterization, otherwise, is of a man who deliberately puts his head in the sand, asks his son to rein it in, refuses to ask too many questions. It’s Jadin’s ghost — a manifestation of Jadin produced by Joe’s mind — that Joe lives with. Not the Jadin who lived. Can we believe that this father — so brusque, so embarrassed, so unwilling to tread into the territory of his own discomfort that Jadin, while alive, would come to write that he feels surrounded by people who hate him — can know, all of a sudden, what was going on in the inner life of a son whose crises he largely pushed out of mind? “Everybody’s against bullying, aren’t they?” Joe says, confronted with his wife’s skepticism. No, she says, correcting him with a dose of the obvious. If everyone were against bullying, their son would be alive.
Joe Bell is painful, sincere. Its most optimistic and substantial strand is its belief in the possibility of, not forgiveness for the unaccepting, but acceptance in itself — acceptance that would eradicate, upend the need for queer people to learn, later on in life, should they lead long lives, to forgive. But forgiveness for those who failed to accept their loved ones before it was too late is also, it cannot be denied, on the film’s mind to the very end. “I never let him know it was OK,” says Joe, in his encounter with the kindly cop who feeds him, a man whose own son, Joe learns, is also gay. Before hearing Joe’s story — Jadin’s story — the officer admits that he’d never considered that his son might take his own life, or that the boy might need more than silent reassurance that he is loved: that he might need to hear it outright from his father. Joe’s confession of his own failure, delivered as monologue, has clearly stirred something in this man. This, we gather, is key to the purpose of Joe’s journey and, just as essentially, to the movie: to stir these realizations in others, through these interactions, through the talks Joe gives.
It needn’t be said that in death, as imagined by his father, Jadin is able to offer his dad a love that was not adequately reciprocated when he was still alive. It similarly goes without saying that the loss of a child, the grief that ensues, is inexplicable — and that regret, too, and our behavior in its wake, can be hard to explain. For Joe Bell to largely emerge as the tale of one man’s inner journey, rather than as a more thorough dive into the unknowns of his son’s inner life and eventual tragedy, is not out automatically of turn. It is a worthwhile avenue of the broader story: The flaw is not in assigning gravity to Joe’s pain, nor his path. The flaw is something murkier — more tangled, even, than the film’s flirtation with redemption. Ultimately, Joe is limited to an understanding of his son’s life that can only be imagined from his own, imperfect perspective. By the end of the movie, because of the movie, so, for better and worse, are we.