Miller is a talent to watch, but Joe Bell is profoundly tone-deaf, little more than queer cinema for straight people.
Joe Bell is the kind of movie that seems designed to make straight people feel better about themselves but does very little for the LGBT people it claims to support. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, the film stars Mark Wahlberg as a grieving father who decides to walk across the country to raise awareness about bullying after his gay 15-year-old son commits suicide. Written by Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, the Oscar-winning duo behind Brokeback Mountain, Joe Bell is yet another example of straightness being centered in an otherwise queer story. In one shining moment that could almost be mistaken for self-awareness, Wahlberg’s Bell laments that he made his son’s sexuality all about him. But rather than acknowledge that thematically, the film focuses on “redeeming” Bell and absolving him of his sins rather than diving into the experiences of his son, Jadin (played by the remarkable Reid Miller), whose vibrant presence is sorely missed in the film’s second act. At its heart, Joe Bell is little more than gay misery porn, wallowing in tragedy and homophobia for most of its runtime in ways that feel maudlin at best, exploitative at worst. Everything about it screams “Very Important Issue” movie from the early 2000s.
Yes, bullying is real. Yes, homophobia is still rampant in the year 2020. But films like this just feed into that cycle. LGBT people are clearly not the target audience for this movie, but dwelling on bullying and suicide feels reductive. Queer stories don’t have to end in tragedy, and Joe Bell’s lugubriously dated outlook seems to think it’s helping when it’s really doing the opposite. This isn’t queer cinema. But if it were, it would set it back by approximately 20 years. Rather, this is queer cinema for straight people, designed to make them feel good about their allyship by using gay people as tragic martyrs to teach heteros a lesson in tolerance. Written with its heart on its sleeve, its themes spelled out in ponderous expository dialogue, Joe Bell is a well-intentioned drama that feels a few decades too late. Miller is a talent to watch, but the film underuses and misuses him so much in its attempt to affix straightness at the center of a queer narrative that the effect is stifling. Miller deserves better, and so do we.
Originally published as part of TIFF 2020 — Dispatch 3.