Joe Bell (2020) Movie Review – A sad but hopeful drama

A sad but hopeful drama

On the 29th of February, 2013, 15-year old Jadin Bell took his own life after being mercifully bullied for being gay. It’s an all-too-familiar story as, over the years, many LGBTQ young people have killed themselves after being subjected to homophobic physical and verbal attacks. In many cases, their schools failed to protect them from the bullying they endured and, according to the film at least, this was the case for Jadin who didn’t get the help he needed when he was threatened by some of his classmates.

Sadly, we live in a society where homophobia still runs rampant. Parents refuse to accept the sexuality of their children, schools fail to take seriously the bullying that takes place, and groups of narrow-minded individuals try to use conversion therapy to ‘turn’ gay people straight. Thankfully, there is greater tolerance and understanding from some but life still isn’t easy for those who profess to be gay or transgender.

Joe Bell is a film that might resonate with you if you have ever been affected by homophobia or the suicide of somebody close to you. It tells the tale of Joe, the grieving father of Jadin, who decided to walk across the United States to spread awareness about teen bullying to any school or community group that would give him the platform to share his experiences.

His is an inspirational story as rather than let grief overwhelm him into silence, he took action instead, turning a tragic event into something that could, potentially, save the lives of others. I had never heard of Joe or Jadin before watching this film but after viewing it, I am glad I was able to experience their story, despite the crushing heartbreak I felt during and after the film.

As played by Mark Wahlberg, the character of Joe is an interesting one. He is not particularly likeable, at least initially, partly due to his gruff persona and heated temperament. However, it is clear that he loves Jadin and mercifully, doesn’t treat his son like a second class citizen because of his sexuality.

As Joe journeys to New York on his personal crusade, he is sometimes joined by the imagined persona of Jadin. I don’t know if this is a reflection of what the real-life Joe experienced on his travels or whether Jadin’s ghostly presence is merely a plot device for the film, but whatever the case, the back and forth between the two gives us an insight into the struggles Joe sometimes had to convey his message effectively.

As he progresses further, he manages to gain courage in the things he needs to say and this is highlighted by the imagined Jadin smiling in recognition at his father’s efforts to be more open about himself and the experiences his son went through.

Wahlberg is excellent as Joe and relative newcomer Reid Miller is equally as good as Jadin, giving an emotionally raw performance that manages to draw us into the pain that Jadin experienced.

While the film sometimes focuses on other members of the family and the people that Joe encounters during his travels, it always brings us back into the father-son relationship, be that through flashbacks to the time before Jadin’s death or the roadside conversations that Joe has with his dead son on his journey.

The film is directed in a low key style by Reinaldo Marcus Green, the director of the recent King Richard, and it avoids sentimentality and audience manipulation. It manages to evoke tears by telling the story of Jadin and Joe without a lot of emotional melodrama but it sometimes skips over scenes that could have made the film more powerful.

We never get to see Joe’s reaction to the news that his son has died, for example, and we rarely get to hear a lot of Joe’s testimony when he is sharing his experiences with others. It’s as if the director and screenwriters have purposefully avoided certain moments to avoid tugging too heavily on our heartstrings, perhaps to avoid criticism from hardened movie reviewers.

However, this is a film that demanded a few more scenes of emotional anguish to fully showcase the fallout of Jadin’s death and the effect it had on those around him. This isn’t to say there aren’t scenes of high emotion – the scene when Jadin’s mother (Connie Britton) finds out her son is dead is devastating – but in most cases, the film is surprisingly muted during times when other directors may have focussed more heavily on the heartbreak of those involved in the tragedy.

Still, this isn’t necessarily a criticism but more of an observation from somebody who has experience of the devastating effects of suicide and the bullying that continues to take place within the LGBTQ community. And besides, the film, for the most part, manages to put across its message without overplaying the emotional card, a little like Joe himself in this regard, so it can’t be heavily faulted.

This is a good film that demands to be watched by as many people as possible. After a delayed release, this is now possible, in the UK at least, as Amazon Prime have included it on their streaming service. I hope its message of tolerance hits home with those who have bullied or judged others for being ‘different’ and I hope it encourages those parents who do have LGBTQ children to be more accepting and supportive.

For those who are currently struggling with life as a gay or transgender person, I also hope the film encourages them to speak up about the issues they may be having at school or elsewhere. If we can all be more open and loving towards one another, there will be far fewer teen suicides this or any other year.

I recommend the film then, even if it isn’t the emotional powerhouse that it could have been. The story of Jadin Bell is one that deserves to be told as do the stories of young people who share/have shared his experiences.  It’s a sad film to be sure, and there are shocks in store outside of Jadin’s death. But it’s also a hopeful film in that it recognises the efforts of Joe and people like him to spread awareness about a very real issue that is still affecting many young people today. Watch it, be moved, and then do something rather than nothing to care for the people in your life that may be hurting right now.


Read More: Joe Bell Ending Explained

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  • Verdict - 7.5/10

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