By Kurt Jensen | Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — Much of the dialogue in the somber “Joe Bell” (Roadside) sounds as if it could have been engraved on stone tablets.
That’s because all the words are intended to have weight and serve as a warning. Unfortunately, the heavy-handedness of the narrative only serves to undermine its impact.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green and screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry present viewers, moreover, with a panorama of unrelieved tragedy and raw psychological pain.
The film is based on the true story of the grieving father (Mark Wahlberg) from whose name it takes its title. Following the 2013 suicide of his 15-year-old son, Jadin (Reid Miller), the victim of anti-gay bullying, Bell began a cross-country trek on foot to deal with his loss and warn any group that would have him about the dangers of the kind of persecution to which Jadin had been subjected.
The goal of his journey, undertaken with the support of his wife, Lola (Connie Britton), was to make it to New York City, where Jadin had longed to live and work. The Oregon resident had only reached eastern Colorado, however, when he was killed by a tractor-trailer, the driver of which had apparently fallen asleep.
Despite the fact that Ossana and McMurtry (who died in March, aged 84) collaborated on the script for 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain,” here they have avoided romanticizing or glamorizing homosexuality. The movie focuses instead on the kind of emotional abuse from which no one should have to suffer.
Thus, while mature believers will have to bring careful discernment to bear in assessing the picture’s values, they can do so in conformity with the nuanced position that characterizes the treatment of same-sex attraction found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
There, as is well known, an important distinction is made between the respect due to every person and the moral status of certain acts not in conformity with God’s plan for humanity as revealed in Scripture and sacred tradition. If, according to this teaching, some are called to practice complete chastity, all are exhorted to show true charity.
Still, many will be uncomfortable with the sight of Jadin kissing another boy. They also may be discomfited by the explicitly anti-clerical and more broadly anti-Catholic bias Bell expresses — all the more so because of the vulgar way in which he briefly gives vent to these views. While denouncing what he considers the clergy’s hypocrisy, however, he makes no attack on the divine.
In the end, “Joe Bell” is really about bereavement as well as the need to communicate with — and accept — loved ones. Christian moviegoers will want to distinguish between embracing people and endorsing every action to which they might be drawn. But, having sifted this earthy, overly earnest drama with that caveat in mind, they will likely find at least a residue of positive morality.
The film contains mature themes, including homosexuality, physical violence, frequent slurs, a same-sex kiss and some rough and crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.