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Mark Wahlberg's thoughtfully bold performance powers the affecting 'Joe Bell'

Warning: This true story about a dad walking across the country to raise anti-bullying awareness for his gay son will rock you emotionally.
Credit: Roadside Attractions

ST. LOUIS — The one thing that every son and daughter in the world wants from their parents is the knowledge that they are okay with who they have become. What most kids don't know is that it goes the other way as well.

"Joe Bell" centers around the true story of a father (Mark Wahlberg) from LeGrand, Oregon chasing compassion on a cross-country to honor his gay son, Jadin (Reid Miller). Joe's mission is to raise awareness for anti-bullying, something that afflicts his teenage son at school every single day. Small towns with big mouths make life a walking inferno for Jadin, a sweet young man who wishes no one any harm or foul. Acceptance is his goal. While Joe accepted his son internally, he didn't fight for him in public much due to public pushback in a very small town. The walk, as Joe puts it, is for Jadin.

Do yourself a favor and DON'T read a single thing about this movie before seeing it, especially the trailer. Don't google it. While I won't spoil anything in this review, the wise decision may be to jump out of this review right now and save it for later. The only risk you face is getting leveled inside the theater. That's what Reinaldo Marcus Green's film will do to you... especially if you let it in close.

What Green manages to do here is take what would ordinarily be very melodramatic scenes (kettle corn for most filmmakers) and find a way to keep them lucid and real throughout the film's most powerful moments. The secret weapon of "Joe Bell" is its restraint and intimacy with its subjects, which include Joe's wife, Lola (played by the wonderful Connie Britton) and an officer (hello, Gary Sinise!) that he comes upon on his journey east.

Gone is the big movie star vehicle glitz and glamour and in its place is a raw and deftly told tale about forgiveness. But you can't think of forgiveness as a single entity or thing. It's shape-shifting and visceral when unchecked, something that Joe finds out throughout his trip--on foot. For six months, he pushed a cart (carrying a cooler and his supplies) across dangerous roads and through many sunsets speaking to any room full of people that would have him. Support groups, meetings, high schools, wherever there were listeners.

If restraint is the secret sauce here, Wahlberg is the navigator that carries it through. While you could build a Mount Rushmore full of great Bostonian heroes he has played in his versatile career, Bell was a changeup for the movie star and Oscar-nominated actor. A very bold one. He can't coast here or just entertain. This is a stripped-down, brilliantly layered performance that doesn't go over the top once.

This is a role that any actor could have chewed up and ripped apart. Wahlberg slows everything down, thankfully. He gets down to the nerve area of Joe's suffering, giving us just enough answers along with questions. And it's not just all soft-spoken Wahlberg, as the actor proves he can go from 0 to 60 in a minute with his temper, shown brutally in one scene. It's a full-bodied performance.

Is it Oscar-worthy? It doesn't matter. What matters is that Wahlberg is still taking risks and going for roles outside of his wheelhouse. He's not alone in the giving great performances department here though. That's Miller, who is a revelation as Jadin.

Instead of just showing us the pain in this young man's face, Miller tears into the soulful sadness buried inside Jadin's quiet rage. He gives a noble and honest face here to the thousands (millions?) of kids who felt and continue to feel what he did every day of his life. The doubt in other's faces, the lowbrow looks, and quick eye movements. A letter Lola finds and reads to Joe late in the film counts as one of its best scenes.

Another great scene involves Sinise's lawman sharing a few hours with Joe on the road in Lincoln County, Colorado. The two men share a few more things in common than they'd like to admit initially, but it's well-played between the two actors. It's true that talent lifts up other talent. Wahlberg is at his best when surrounded by big talent. In the hands of another couple souls, this scene falls flat. With Sinise and Wahlberg, it provokes thought and hits the mark.

Britton simply can't give a bad performance. Whether it's a juicy yet small role in last year's amazing "Promising Young Woman" or something bigger here, she fits into any picture or setup. It's her calming ways, like Sinise, that connect so well with her main co-star. Britton and Wahlberg pay beautiful service to the blunt directness yet deep love that was shared between Joe and Lola.

It's not a perfect film, but it's confident in its ways and message. The message is that with just a tiny ounce of acceptance every day from an unlikely source, lives could be saved. Simple as that. If you think Joe was out there paying his penance for not being a better listener or receiver for Jadin, you're not wrong. But this film's lived-in aesthetic and lean running time give the performances and Green's direction the weight it needs.

For a film with a bittersweet cover like this one, nothing is forced. The restraint, along with Wahlberg's bold deep dive, are reasons alone to see "Joe Bell" this weekend.

Movies can't break down barriers. They don't work that way. But they can start conversations, build understanding, and provide people with some hope. That was Joe's plan. It should be ours as we leave the theater.