Joe Bell — starring Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton, and Gary Sinise — opens in theaters today from director Reinaldo Marcus Green and the writing team behind Brokeback Mountain. It tells the emotional true story of an father from Oregon who paid tribute to his gay teenage son Jadin, by embarking on a self-reflective walk across America to speak his heart to citizens in the heartland about the real costs of bullying.
While it has a heartfelt message that tries really hard, that message falls flat. Combining elements of a road trip movie with a coming of age and an LGBTQ drama, it all starts to feel like a little much when you toss it all in the salad at once. Everyone’s heart was in the right place here. It’s a conversation that needs to be had, and it’s important that we acknowledge the silent suffering so many young people (and not young people) go through just for being themselves.
The reverse storytelling aspect of the film is interesting, but it unfortunately falls victim to predictability and paints by the numbers too much, which makes the method less impactful. There are bold choices made here that feel oh so close to hitting in the right way. All of the pieces involved here could make for a moving film, but it all just seems to be trying a little too hard to get an emotional reaction from its audience while lacking some necessary dramatic punch.
It was interesting to see Mark Wahlberg experiment with a more dramatic role that didn’t rely on action or comedy, and while it was clear he dug deep for this role, it wore off after a while. Connie Britton is a reliably good actor, so there isn’t any lacking there, but the script and the storyline leave much to be desired with what her character is given. Reid Miller has a great performance here that proves he deserves to be considered for more films. A surprising actor shows up when Lieutenant Dan… I mean Gary Sinise… shows up playing a compassionate police officer. These performances, in addition to the heartfelt “based on a true story” message, of course, are what people will remember from this film. I just wish it was overall more impactful.
The soundtrack features some songs that might surprise you, so read on to see what’s on this Super Soundtrack:
“Born This Way” by Lady Gaga
In a clip that appeared in the trailer, the son sings part of Lady Gaga’s iconic song, “Born This Way,” before his father joins in with him. Gaga released the song as the lead single from her album of the same title. A song of inclusion that empowers minority groups including members of the LGBTQ+ community and racial minorities, the song is perfectly suited for a film like Joe Bell.
“Song for the Thankful” by Avi Kaplan
Playing in the background, you can hear Avi Kaplan’s “Song for the Thankful.” He released the song in April 2021, and it’s about finding gratitude in the good and bad of life.
“Keep On Going” by Keelan Donovan
This song was actually released specifically for Joe Bell, and came out the same day as the film. Keelan Donovan’s voice is reminiscent of his peers Ben Rector and Matt Nathanson, with whom he has also toured.
“Surrender” by Now It’s Overhead
Indie rockbound Now It’s Overhead released the song “Surrender” on their 2004 album, Fall Back Open. The band’s frontman was Andy LeMaster, and the group was based out of Athens, Georgia.
“Song for the Lonely” by Cher
A drag queen Cher is lip syncing along to Cher’s song at the gay bar scene in the movie. Cher originally released the dance song in 2001 on her album, Living Proof. Written as a love song, “Song for the Lonely” took on new meaning following the attack of 9/11.
“Put A Little Love In Your Heart” by Dolly Parton
Also during the gay bar scene, a drag queen Dolly walks away from Joe Bell to get on stage and perform the song, “Put A Little Love In Your Heart.” Originally released in 1969 by Jackie DeShannon, Parton released her version, which was more gospel-inspired, in 1993.
“Fault Line” by Daniel Tashian
This song was actually one of my favorites from the film, but there is no trace of the track or any information about it online. It plays during a scene at the bull riding competition and rodeo in Joe Bell. Daniel Tashian is a talented singer-songwriter I’m familiar with, and he has written songs for Josh Turner, Billy Currington, LeeAnn Womack, and Tenille Townes, but this song is somewhat of a mystery right now.
“Ready” by Andy LeMaster
Andy LeMaster is the frontman for a band whose music was featured earlier in the film with Now It’s Overhead. “Ready” is one of LeMaster’s solo songs that followed his time with the group.
“A Bullet and a Prayer” by Sky Walker
Sky Walker released “A Bullet and a Prayer” in 2017, and it appears on his 2017 album, Country Heroes and Outlaws.
“High Road” by Daniel Tashian
This is the second Daniel Tashian song featured in Joe Bell and also the second song of his that I am unable to find any additional information about online. Again, I loved the song, and I love him as an artist, but I don’t know where to get the song.
“Country Girl Like Me” by Fredrick Shafer, Jamey Perrenot, and Skinny Williams
Shafer, Perrenot, and Williams’ “Country Girl Like Me” is featured on a compilation album titled Nashville Pop, released in 2017.
“The Joke” by Brandi Carlile
Brandi Carlile released “The Joke” as the lead single off her album, By the Way, I Forgive You, in 2017. The song is right up this film’s alley singing about people struggling to fit into society. “The joke’s on them.” Every time I hear it, I get chills. Nominated for four Grammys in 2019, the song was a great success on the charts, and the live performances were some of Carlile’s best yet.
Catch Joe Bell playing in theaters now.