I don’t know who gave Good Joe Bell his nickname, but they were about as accurate as they were inventive. According to the movie’s log lines, Joe Bell (Mark Wahlberg) is a father from Oregon who sets out on a walk across America in honour of his son, Jadin (Reid Miller). Which is bullshit. I don’t dispute the Oregon part. Or the walking part either. He definitely does some walking, pushing a cart containing whatever camping gear hasn’t been stolen yet today. It’s the whole in honour of his son part that rankles. Joe may believe, or choose to believe, or fool himself that he’s walking for his son, but he’s really walking for himself. He’s walking for absolution. He’s trying to out-walk his guilt.
When his son came out to him, Joe didn’t exactly win any father of the year awards. He thought it was enough to not kick him out. Despite his wife’s pleas (Connie Britton), he didn’t work too hard at acceptance or even tolerance. He hid his disapproval behind thin veils and assumed his son would and should do most of the work to make his father comfortable, presuming this wasn’t some sort of phase, which Joe was of course hoping it would be, right up until Jadin took his own life.
So now Joe is walking across America, neglecting his wife and remaining children, stopping at schools to preach his an anti-bullying message, and at any community even that will have him to warn parents not to reject their gay kids. None of his missives is particularly effective, but blaming bullying is easier than dealing with his own complicity in his son’s suicide. Joe “talks” to his dead son on his walk but never seems to truly understand him – neither does Mark Wahlberg, for that matter, and director Reinaldo Marcus Green seems indifferent. With such a shallow approach, this feels like a movie from 25 or even 35 years ago, so heavy-handed and so proud of itself for so little. I’m sure it’s well-intentioned, but that’s hardly enough, for a message or a movie.
The only thing this movie does well is casting Mark Wahlberg, who is a little too believable as a homophobe and a failure at fatherhood. The rest is a mess. Its broad perspective renders it obsolete, it lacks self-awareness, and I don’t believe anyone involved has truly considered what or who this is actually for and about.