Mark Wahlberg is no stranger to controversy or crime – in fiction and in real life – so Good Joe Bell always felt like a jarring choice to be his next project. But as an overtly redemptive role and an attempt to engage with the darker corners of his own past, it’s an admirable effort.
Following the titular father’s attempt to walk across America,in an effort to raise awareness about homophobic bullying after the experience of his son, Good Joe Bell never strays far from expectations as a tear-jerker family drama, even if a non-linear narrative and plenty of well-placed plot jolts make it better than it would otherwise be. Wahlberg’s performance as the flawed father just doing his best is believable and often moving, clearly grounded in his own experiences and all-too-recent conversion to the status of Good Guy.
Supporting work from an underused Connie Britton as Lola Bell, Reid Miller as Jadin Bell and Gary Sinise – who it’s great to see do anything – help Wahlberg carry the load, but it’s his film and his alone. That’s the issue of contention. Miller as Jadin is far more interesting than Joe and, though it becomes clear why he can’t persist as the main character, doesn’t get the attention his story deserves.
Green’s respectable mission to engage with the lives of LGBT teens in modern America is, closer to unexceptional recent efforts Boy Erased and Love, Simon than anything more adventurous, and intentionally so. Good Joe Bell is so interested in the journey of its mild-mannered protagonist that we lose a sense of why that journey is so important. That can be explained easily enough by Wahlberg’s A-List presence in a low-budget production. But it doesn’t make for particularly memorable work in all.