In the most Freudian sense our ghosts are familiar to us, and by extension the haunting or any uncanny feeling triggered by them comes from the fact that ghosts are aware of what lies deep underneath our souls or consciousness; they remind us of things, people and traumas, and we act as if they were not there anymore. In this sense, Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Good Joe Bell is not a ghost story, but a story with a ghost. It is the narrative of a father, Joe Bell, played by a surprisingly subtle Mark Wahlberg (whose casting almost acts as a metatextual commentary, especially if we think about the actor’s personal narrative), who is haunted by his dead son’s memory as he goes on a pilgrimage in his honor. This is a story of a man coming to terms with his own mistakes, and the fact that he blames himself for not having helped his boy when he needed it the most. This is also a story of a teenage boy who came out to his parents and did not receive the support he needed, either from them or from his schoolteachers and principal. Therefore, Good Joe Bell becomes a film more nuanced than expected, and its reception more complex than what probably was intended. Whose story is being told and to whom?
Through the conversations between Joe and his son, Jadin (played by Reid Miller, who is a revelation here), it becomes clear that what seemed to be a supportive attitude when Jadin came out of the closet was in fact embarrassment. Joe is seen asking Jadin to man up, not dance with his friend in front of the house, or to simply understand that that is how things go. Here is when things get tricky; the film is narrated from a future point of view to all the bullying and violence shown. We know that Jadin is dead, and we know that we are watching his father’s memories as he is stuck in a guilt trip circle. Even Jadin’s ghost is a product of his father’s delusions, and such a narrative choice might bother some people, for this is mostly the story of Joe Bell and his search for redemption. His son’s death was the trigger for his journey across the United States, and this matters a lot.
It matters because when they are talking and letting us know about the past, Joe is talking to himself. When Joe and Jadin are singing Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, Joe is singing by himself. When Joe hugged his son after his coming out, Joe is the one telling us that. Then, we never get to see what it was really like when Jadin came out. We never get a glimpse of Joe’s embarrassment towards his kid other than him telling Jadin to man up. Yet at the same time, in small flashback scenes that are not connected to Joe, we see Jadin in an unbearable amount of pain and discomfort, not only because of bullies at school, but also because of his father. Because of how much hurt Jadin was in when his parents, after hearing some teens bullying their own son during a football game, simply stood up and left the place. All of this, however, could’ve come from Joe’s guilt, but we also get to see small, beautiful moments when Jadin gives his first kiss and then tells a friend about it. These are not Joe’s memories, they are Jadin’s. Who is narrating then? Here’s the problem: are Jadin’s flashbacks given as much importance as Joe’s memories? They are not, and when those Jadin moments appear next to his father’s it is almost impossible not to notice that they do not have the same weight.
Thus, perhaps, Good Joe Bell is only the story of a father’s regrets, and in this sense it works and sometimes even soars, like when Joe is confronted by his wife (Connie Britton), who suggests he is simply avoiding staying at home with them. She is after all the one raising their second child and dealing with Jadin’s belongings all by herself. At another moment, Joe gets angry and violent towards his younger son for no reason at all; however, this complexity is never taken further because we are again dragged back to Joe’s delusion.
So, this is the story of a man crossing the country by foot to raise awareness of his son’s suicide and to get to New York, where he wanted to live had he had the chance. And perhaps this is aimed at people who, like Joe, seem to believe that things are getting better, for people are good deep inside. Joe talks to people about love and respect only to learn by the end of his journey that the world demands some confrontation, that ‘love is love’ may be an overused and meaningless sentence, when people are being kicked out of their homes, getting killed or killing themselves. In another scene, Joe is eating breakfast and after listening to some homophobic comments he just leaves the place and gives those men one card with his message. His dead son confronts him to show that those people and their sons were the problem, not the people who stopped to listen to Joe’s talks. But above all, what the scene makes us question is: what if Joe did not have a gay son, would he leave the place anyway or would he just act like it was none of his business? Would the overheard homophobic conversation still have bothered him?
Now a small digression about my own experience with coming out and homophobia: I was born in 1988 and I’ve often caught myself thinking of how it would take another two years for the WHO to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses, and beyond that, how many more years until I heard the word gay. In any case, what I do remember is that I was first called that as an insult, I was first told about who I was by a straight person. Thus my journey of discovery and acceptance of my own identity began as an insult and was shaped by someone else’s gaze. This leads my memory to my days in military school and how almost every day something happened, and every single time I complained about it my teachers would tell me that I should stop acting the way I did. That I should spend more time with boys instead of hanging out with girls. That I should man up. This always brings Larry Kramer’s anger to my mind, and every time I remember those years I think about a small passage from his play The Normal Heart that goes like this: “In closing, I’m just gonna say I’m mad. I’m fucking mad! I keep screaming inside, ‘Why are they letting us die?’, ‘Why is no one helping us?’. And here’s the truth. Here’s the answer: they just don’t like us”.
Again, in Good Joe Bell, all the anger and pain are framed by Joe, and the film works better when it accepts that. What creates a problem is that by adding the stories of others to a film that is clearly centered on one character, it may posit but never fully explore that things do not necessarily get better and some people are denied help, like Jadin was. Not only that, but also that the lack of help and support comes not from violent people, as it is clear that they do not care; but what cost Jadin his life was the lack of help coming from his family and friends. From people who pride themselves on being liberals and having no prejudices.
Going back to my personal digression, I got more than Jadin did, and the fact that I am here today when so many others are not reflects that. I remember meeting a guy from school years later who told me that someone we went to school with had killed himself. He was gay. And I think every gay person knows a story or two like that. While writing these words I remembered how during my sophomore year, my Literature teacher expelled somebody who was bothering me, and by the end of that same class she gave me a paper with the name of a movie that was showing in a theater close to my school. I will always remember how that note simply said: “You need to watch this, it’s called Bad Education.” This is a story about how I actually don’t remember how I felt about the Almodóvar flick, but how even sixteen years later I still remember two things: the first time I saw Gael García Bernal’s face and had an immediate crush on him and how I was in a room full of people seeing him in drag and enjoying the show. I remember beginning to love movies and I remember finding joy in being myself there, which was so much more than so many people get.