Joe Bell (Mark Wahlberg) and his son Jadin (a genuinely wonderful Reid Miller) are on a walk from Oregon to New York City spreading awareness about homophobia. Oh, and Jadin isn’t actually alive. If you didn’t already know that this was based off a true story, that would be treated as a twist within the first act. And that’s just one of many issues this film has with depicting the suicide of a real gay person and his father.
Good Joe Bell centers Joe Bell – a father who could never quite get behind Jadin’s outward queerness, and who blames himself for his son’s death. On his long walk, he hallucinates a vision of Jadin – for a good chunk of the film they have playful father/son banter, and they even sing Born this Way.
It’s not that Joe Bell’s perspective isn’t a worthy story – in fact, his grappling with his absence toward Jadin and his own co-opting of Jadin’s narrative is fascinating – but the film’s focus is bafflingly misguided. His jovial banter with his projection of Jadin denies the fictional Joe of any interiority, and does a disservice to the memory of the real Jadin. Jadin is characterized by Lady Gaga lyrics, bleach-blond hair, and suicide; while reducing such a character to the background of a grieving father’s perspective might be a narratively compelling choice in a fully fictional film, it feels perverse to do so in depicting a real human. Death is hardly explored on a subconscious level here – instead, the devastating impact of losing a family member to suicide manifests in bombastic music cues and melodramatic dialogue.
Ghosts, vision, and dreams are inherent to cinema – that this fictional Joe hallucinates his son is not a bad idea – the issue is that his ghost Jadin fails to illuminate anything about Joe. Their dialogue feels like it’s supposed to represent an internal conversation in Joe’s head, but that internal dialogue is often too broad to allow us any access into Joe’s mind. Simultaneously, the film’s anamorphic lensing and drab color palette plays at odds with its vast setting, making the filmmaking approach lack any sense of vision.
If you ask me, I think it’s a shame that the American Film Industry continues to prioritize true stories in the development process – it feels, to me, like each day a press release announces that ‘A’ director is attached to adaptation of ‘B’s’ true story. It begs the question: where do we draw the line when it comes to using representations of somebody’s real life as the selling point of a film? Dramatizing Joe and Jadin Bell’s life feels predatory to me, especially when done in such a reductively dramatic way. Perhaps Jadin and Joe Bell simply do not fit into the structure of a melodrama – if anything their lives deserved more contemplation, interiority, and distance from a filmmaking perspective [F].