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In ‘Joe Bell,’ seeking a better world step by step

Mark Wahlberg stars in this based-on-fact drama about a man making a statement about his son’s mistreatment

Mark Wahlberg, right, and Reid Miller in "Joe Bell."Quantrell D. Colbert/Roadside Attractions

“Joe Bell” isn’t your standard Mark Wahlberg movie. Based on a true story, it’s about the father of a gay teenager who, moved by what his son has had to endure, decides to walk from Oregon to New York to call attention to bullying and intolerance. Wahlberg, playing Joe, puts those action-hero muscles to work carrying a backpack and pushing a three-wheeled cart. Yet the biggest burden he carries is something different: knowledge of his own past insensitivity.

The movie’s heart is completely in the right place, which, frankly, can make it a bit of a chore to watch. Moral righteousness makes the world a better place, but filmic it’s not. Beware of movie protagonists who say “The truth is all I have.” Also beware of screenwriters who give them such lines. Conversely, flashbacks to the treatment Joe’s son Jadin (Reid Miller) had to put up with are hard to watch for very different reasons.

Two things keep the movie from being an extended public service announcement. One is bad, and surprisingly so. The other is good and differently surprising.


The bad thing is a far too tricky narrative structure. It seems all the trickier for the way the movie starts out unframed and feels unshaped. At the two-fifths mark, a jaw-dropping — though emotionally logical — reveal occurs. It takes a while for the movie to recover. Nor does the piling up of flashbacks help.

The script’s shortcomings are a surprise because the screenwriters are Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry (McMurtry died in March). They won an Oscar for “Brokeback Mountain” (2005). As in that movie, the landscape of the American West here becomes a kind of character, a presence at once magnificent and oppressive. The oppressiveness is very different from that of the Bells’s hometown, with its social constriction.


The good thing is the acting. Wahlberg, who’s one of the producers, presumably saw the film as a departure. He’s required to do more emoting here than in maybe all of his previous movies combined. He’s up to the challenge. With his Ancient Mariner beard and wide-eyed stare, Joe looks like a walking raw nerve. Wahlberg capably conveys the rawness.

Mark Wahlberg, left, and Gary Sinise in "Joe Bell." Quantrell D. Colbert/Roadside Attractions

What may be even more of a stretch, he sings a bit of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” in duet with Miller. Don’t worry, the performance is a cappella and impromptu. As Jadin, Miller walks a fine line between precision and exaggeration in a part that’s both flashy and grueling. Connie Britton holds up her end, in the underwritten role of Joe’s long-suffering wife, Lola. Before her husband went on his walkabout, Lola did a fair amount of suffering; and now that he’s on it, she’s suffering in a different way.

Gary Sinise, as a rural sheriff, shows up late in the proceedings. Many years of “CSI” episodes have made it easy to overlook what a fine film actor Sinise is. He and Wahlberg share a scene in the sheriff’s office that’s the most affecting in the movie. It’s also the most restrained. Combining authority and understatement, Sinise takes “Joe Bell” to a higher level.



Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green. Written by Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton, Gary Sinise. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 93 minutes. R (language, including offensive slurs, disturbing scenes of bullying).


Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.