Joe Bell


Some roads are harder than others.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton, Maxwell Jenkins, Gary Sinese, Morgan Lily, Blaine Maye, Igby Rigney, Coral Chambers, Scout Smith, David H. Stevens, Blake Barlow, Charles Halford, Jayne Luke, Juan Antonio, Kenadee Clark, Ash Santos, Cassie Beck, Christina Thurmond, Raquel Horton, Jason Cozmo, Christina Torriente. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

 

Humans tend to fear the different, and that is particularly true of white straight males, or at least, so it seems sometimes. In a conservative town like La Grange, Oregon, a town that prides itself on “American values,” bullying young gay teens seems to have been accepted as adhering to those values.

Joe Bell (Wahlberg) is embarking on a quest; he is walking from La Grange to New York City to put a spotlight on bullying. His son Jadin (Miller) was viciously bullied after coming out, with people leaving messages on his social media profile urging him to off himself. Nevertheless, Jadin became the only male on the cheerleading squad and seemed to be almost defiantly queer, but all was not well. His dad supported him only superficially, so long as his son didn’t embarrass him. Possessed of a hair-trigger temper, Joe often grew enraged over petty things, and at every opportunity he had to show support for his son, he turned away.

But when Jadin takes his own life, Joe is driven by grief (and perhaps guilt) to make his quest, talking up his message to whoever will listen, or at least that’s what he sets out to do. The brutal truth is that Joe isn’t much of a public speaker and when ordering food in a diner, he overhears some other men making ugly homophobic remarks. Instead of confronting them, he hands them a card and leaves, which Jadin rightfully chides him for. You see, even though Jadin is gone, his spirit is walking alongside Joe every step of the way, alternately cheering him on and questioning his methods and motives.

There are no heroes in this movie except for maybe Jadin, and often Jadin is made out to be a stereotype, a martyr of teen bullying. Joe is self-centered, truly a product of a conservative rural town in which men are in charge, women are there for support and those who don’t fit in are to be humiliated, shunned and driven away. Joe acts the way he does because he doesn’t know any better, and in that sense he is a tragic figure; tragic because he doesn’t see that his lack of support, his refusal to stand beside his son instead of sweeping him under the carpet as much as possible has left Jadin feeling alone and with nowhere to turn, which we see in a powerful scene that announces that Miller is a talent to be reckoned with.

As far as Wahlberg goes, this is not a movie that relies on his natural charisma and easy-going charm. Joe is rough around the edges and often says or does the wrong thing. He alienates his long-suffering wife Lola (Britton) and his other son Joseph (Jenkins) at a time when both are hurting, but Joe only sees his own grief. There’s a scene early on where he is addressing a noisy high school assembly about bullying and it’s almost painful to watch as Joe literally fumbles his way through, saying nothing of any depth and concludes with a lame “Any questions?” when he has given them nothing to analyze. It’s brilliant in the sense that you wouldn’t expect a blue collar dad from rural Oregon to suddenly turn into a brilliant orator. Grief isn’t always enough.

The writing, from the Oscar winning duo of Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry who previously collaborated on the far superior Brokeback Mountain, is solid throughout, although to be honest it’s kind of hard to make something interesting of a movie that’s essentially about a guy walking down the side of the road. At times, the movie seems a bit maudlin, and it does feel like a movie that was meant for woke audiences rather than those who really need to see it  I must say, however, that it was nice to see Gary Sinese on the big screen, although his role shows up late in the film as a sympathetic sheriff.

This is another movie whose heart is in the right place but could have used a bit of sprucing up to make it truly marvelous, but we’ll have to make do with memorable performances by Wahlberg and Miller which isn’t really a bad thing.

REASONS TO SEE: Heartfelt messaging. Wahlberg is solid in unfamiliar territory, and Miller is a breakout star.
REASONS TO AVOID: Preaches to the choir somewhat and maudlin in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity including offensive slurs and disturbing thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Jadin is depicted to have died immediately in his suicide attempt, in reality he was still alive when he was discovered and hung on for 15 more days before being taken off life support and passing away.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews; Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Laramie Project
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Till Death

Maineland


This is a different kind of education.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Stella Xinyi Zhu, Harry Junru He, Christopher Hibbard. Directed by Miao Wang

 

I have long been fascinated by China and her ancient culture; a 2010 visit to the country merely whetted my appetite for more. Documentaries like this therefore pique my interest perhaps more than the average filmgoer.

There has been a massive influx of Chinese students attending American schools. Since 2008, the number has increased dramatically and as Chinese affluence has grown, private high schools and universities have found Chinese tuition fees to be in some cases vital to the survival of some of these schools.

Fryeburg Academy in Maine is one of the oldest high schools in the country having been founded in 1790. More than 160 students from China attend the school, living in a boarding facility on-campus. While the bulk of students are local, the school relies on the tuition and boarding fees to keep its doors open. Admissions director Christopher Hibbard goes on a recruiting drive in a variety of cities on the Chinese mainland. Chinese parents are eager to have their kids educated in the United States not only for prestige reasons but so that they can learn America culture, make contacts in America and one day hopefully do business in the United States. For their part, the students are eager for a different kind of education; Chinese schools tend to focus on rote memorization and on sometimes brutally hard examinations.

This documentary by Chinese émigré Miao Wang (Beijing Taxi) follows two students attending Fryeburg over their three-year academic career there. Stella is a vivacious, outgoing young lady from Shanghai who makes friends easily, has a brilliant movie star smile and had yearned to go to school in America ever since she’d seen High School Musical.

Harry, on the other hand, is more introverted. He comes from another large Chinese city – Guangzhou – which is like many Chinese cities full of gleaming skyscrapers and high-tech public transportation. He has a more introspective bent and doesn’t really socialize well. He prefers to retreat into the world of video games and when stressed, sits down to play the piano. If left to his own devices, he would want to be a music composer.

However, both of these kids have heavy expectations laid on them by their parents. They are not only expected to do well academically but their lives are pointed towards expanding the family financial fortunes, prestige and power. Everything else is secondary. Studying hard is second nature to them and the critical thinking that most decent American schools try to instill in their students is as foreign to them as hot dogs and county fairs.

It’s not just a cultural change the two encounter; that’s difficult enough but both are going from a cosmopolitan urban life to a slower-paced small town life. Fryeburg students are used to hiking, fishing and swimming as things to do; the many distractions of a big city just aren’t available to them.

What do the kids think about all this? It’s hard to say. Want doesn’t really do what you would call probing interviews with her subjects. She seems more content to be a fly on the wall and let them comment as they will. Like most Asian people, politeness is a way of life and it is decidedly impolite to criticize one’s hosts and so any negative feelings that the two visitors might have about their host country (and their native land for that matter) are largely held back. They do comment on some of the cultural differences between China and America but by and large, we really don’t know what the kids are thinking.

All right, but what about their fellow students and their teachers? The same problem exists there too. From what the film shows the Chinese students largely stick together and if they develop friendships with American students or students from other countries, it’s not shown here. It is understandable that the students in a foreign land would want to stick together with those from their own country – at least they have something in common – but we never get a sense as to whether the American students are urged to make the visitors feel at home, or whether they even want to. An extra five or ten minutes exploring the thoughts of those who are being visited would have been very welcome.

And in fact because of Wang’s style, we really don’t do much more than surface exploration of the situation. It’s all very superficial which doesn’t make for a great documentary. There’s some lovely cinematography of the beautiful Maine countryside as well as the futuristic Chinese cities but as much time as we spend with Stella and Harry we end up not knowing them all that well which is a bit unsettling. We do see that their attitudes towards their home country do undergo a change but we never get to see much about why that attitude changed and what their parents and siblings think about it. There’s certainly a lot of meat to be had in a documentary like this but sadly we are mostly served bone.

REASONS TO GO: It’s interesting to see American small town life through the eyes of a different culture.
REASONS TO STAY: We don’t really get to hear much about what people think about the various circumstances being presented.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the US Department of Commerce, there were nearly 370,000 Chinese students in American high schools and universities in 2015, more than six times as many as were here in 2005 and bringing in roughly $11.4 billion into the US economy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: School Life
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sollers Point