Movies

What critics think of ‘Joe Bell,’ Mark Wahlberg’s new anti-bullying movie

Read the reviews — good and bad — of the Dorchester native's anti-bullying drama.

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

When it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2020, Mark Wahlberg’s anti-bullying drama was known as “Good Joe Bell.” Following half-decent reviews at the festival, Roadside Attractions decided to re-cut the film and drop the “Good,” changing the title to just “Joe Bell.”

Which begs the question: Is there anything good about “Joe Bell”?

Based on a true story, Wahlberg plays Joe Bell, a father who doesn’t know how to react when his son Jadin (Reid Miller) comes out as gay. When Jadin kills himself due to relentless bullying at school, Joe embarks on a cross-country walk from his home in Oregon to New York City, both to raise awareness and to come to terms with his own shortcomings.

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At the time of this article’s publication, “Joe Bell” had earned a 39 percent freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes, though that number includes critics who saw the earlier cut of the movie last fall. (Post-festival re-cuts aren’t uncommon, and it’s unclear exactly how substantial the changes were for “Joe Bell” from September’s debut to now.)

That said, a single number can’t adequately capture the range of critical response, and many of the reviews coded as “fresh” or “rotten” by the critical aggregation site have a bit more nuance. To help you judge whether to head to theaters for Wahlberg’s latest, here’s what some of the top film critics are saying, both good and bad, about “Joe Bell.”

The Good

In his TIFF review round-up, critic Dwight Brown praised Wahlberg’s performance as a career-best, and predicted an Oscar nomination in the Dorchester native’s future.

“Most of Mark Wahlberg’s performances are tied to ultra-masculine roles (pugilist in The Fighter; bounty hunter in Transformers: Age of Extinction). In this touching and sobering family drama, his interpretation of an Oregon father in search of redemption lets him give his most layered, nuanced and sensitive performance yet.”

Kate Erbland of IndieWire gave “Joe Bell” a B+, crediting the film with subverting its well-worn narrative path and finding poignancy in quiet moments.”

“While formulaic on its face, Green’s film resists the sort of obvious cinematic catharsis expected of such a story, resulting in a final product that mostly earns its emotional beats.”


The So-So

Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair described his complicated feelings about Wahlberg’s performance, noting his perspective as a film critic who was bullied for being gay growing up in Boston.

“That Joe is played by Wahlberg gives the film a curious extra dimension. Wahlberg, in his long career as a musician and actor, has said some uncharitable—or flat-out bigoted—things about gay people. […] His appearance in this film, then—a seemingly pure act of volition, perhaps meant to reflect an evolving personal ethos—earns some begrudging respect. Again, it’s maybe not enough, but it’s something.There’s a self-consciousness to Wahlberg’s performance that works well for the role.”

Mark Feeney of The Boston Globe gave “Joe Bell” two-and-a-half stars, praising Wahlberg for showing more emotion in his performance than all of his previous movies combined, but panning the screenplay and the formulaic plot. 

“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.”


The Ugly

Variety’s Peter Debruge called the film “uniquely terrible,” panning “Joe Bell” director Reinaldo Marcus Green for making a feature-length film on a topic that would have worked better “as a 90-second news brief.” 

“There are good movies, there are bad movies, and then there is “Joe Bell,” a uniquely terrible treatment of an important topic — broadly described as “inclusivity” and “tolerance” by the film’s wild-eyed protagonist (Mark Wahlberg) — whose hubristic title is the first clue that it’s not playing fair.”

Jeannette Catsoulis of the New York Times criticized the film for turning Jadin into a “sentimental contrivance” and for being “far less interested” in the suffering of the teenage character than his father. 

“By and large, audiences don’t go to the movies to watch unprepossessing people engage in tedious pursuits — however noble or well-intentioned. And I have seen few cinematic sights more tedious this year than Mark Wahlberg trudging across America as the title character of “Joe Bell,” a droopy drama with its feet on the blacktop and its heart set on redemption.”

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