Spoiler alert: “Joe Bell” is based on a true-life story. The story below contains details that reveal the ending of the film.
If you were in the right place at the right time – in this case, on a deserted highway in the middle of nowhere – you might have heard Mark Wahlberg boisterously belt lyrics to Lady Gaga’s queer anthem “Born This Way.”
Off-key and half-shouting “Don’t hide yourself in regret / just love yourself and you’re set,” he was, of course, acting, as the titular character of “Joe Bell” (in theaters Friday). “I must have listened to that song, and only that song, for probably two months,” Wahlberg says over a Zoom call from Los Angeles.
The film, based on a true story, follows Joe’s trek on foot across the country starting in spring 2013 – from La Grande, Oregon, en route to New York – to teach a message of tolerance and the harmful effects of bullying to anyone who will listen, from bar customers to auditoriums full of people, as a way to honor his 15-year-old gay son Jadin (Reid Miller).
The Gaga-infused scene, less than 15 minutes into the movie, also features onscreen son Jadin. Sadly it is one of the film’s few light moments: Viewers later learn that Jadin died by suicide after an onslaught of bullying revealed in flashbacks. The Jadin we meet on the highway is merely Joe’s vision.
Wahlberg, 50, says the bittersweet moment lets Joe imagine what life could have looked like had he been a better father and supported his son more fully when he came out.
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Wahlberg learned to ‘be a little softer’ with his kids
Wahlberg – a father of four – felt compelled to make the movie.
“Joe learning ‘Oh, my God, I am as responsible as these kids who were bullying my son, because I didn’t love him the way he needed me to and I didn’t support him the way he needed me to,’ that was obviously very devastating,” Wahlberg says.
The actor has four children with his wife of almost 12 years, model Rhea Durham: Ella, 17; Michael, 15; Brendan, 12; and Grace, 11.
Making the movie challenged Wahlberg’s parenting prowess. “I was more strict with my kids, and I think after making this movie, I said, ‘OK, well, let me loosen the reins a little bit.’ The best way to get them to be completely open with me and communicate with me about everything is be a little softer.”
Wahlberg says he’s broached the topic of bullying with his own children, and how critical it is “to always stand up for somebody else who is being picked on and be an example.”
Miller, 21, who plays Wahlberg’s son, was bullied himself growing up in a small Texas town. His arts aspirations didn’t fit the traditional mold of playing football or other sports. Even in a supportive household, the bullying took its traumatizing toll.
“If people don’t know you, and they’re too young or too uneducated or too inexperienced to understand how powerful words can be, they will just say the meanest things,” he says. “That was a big connecting point with me and Jadin, knowing that I at least had some experience in knowing what it’s like to feel alone, to feel neglected by the people around you.”
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The real Joe Bell: ‘A complicated guy’
Wahlberg waxes thoughtfully but carefully about the real Joe Bell, who only got as far as Colorado in October 2013 before a truck fatally struck him on the highway, cutting his trek tragically short. The actor calls Joe “a complicated guy.”
“He thought he was doing everything he could and should to protect his family,” Wahlberg says. “He thought he had really evolved because he was abused as a child. And he thought, ‘OK, well, I don’t beat my kids. So I’m already doing a better job.’ But he didn’t understand the importance of just really accepting, embracing Jadin for who he was.”
Wahlberg hopes Joe’s message resonates through the film. “Hopefully, this will touch a lot of people like Joe that he was going to talk to across the country,” Wahlberg says.
Miller encourages others to check in on those they care about. Genuinely ask friends and family how they are doing.
“That could totally change someone’s day, and inevitably help the course of their life just knowing that they have someone like you to lean on,” he says.
And when in doubt, channel “Born This Way.”
If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online. Crisis Text Line provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.
The Trevor Project helps LGBTQ+ people struggling with thoughts of suicide at 866-488-7386 or text 678-678.
The LGBT National Help Center National Hotline can be reached at 1-888-843-4564.
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