I’ll never forget leaving the screening of “Green Book” at TIFF 2018 and a friend and colleague asked me what I thought, and I said, “Grandmas are going to love it.” Yes, that’s incredibly reductive of all the progressive grandmothers out there, but the quip was meant to confer how much I felt it was going to appeal to a incredibly wide demographic and make clear that it was relatively toothless and eager-to-please. It went on to win the TIFF Audience Award, riding a wave of grandma support, and, well, the rest is history. I had a similar feeling after watching Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “Good Joe Bell,” a film that checks all the boxes for broad demographic appeal, while also just not being very good at what it’s trying to do by virtue of choosing a shallow, obvious approach over a complex, character-driven one.
Green’s film tells the true story of Joe Bell (Mark Wahlberg), an Oregon man whose son Jadin (Reid Miller) was bullied to an extreme and dangerous degree because he was gay in a community where that’s basically seen as a crime. After tragedy struck, Joe decided to do something drastic: he planned to walk the entire length of the country from the West Coast to New York, where Jadin wanted to move when he grew up, to a community that supported him more. As he traveled the country, Joe would speak to anyone who would listen about bullying, stopping at schools to give presentations and even dropping into gay bars just to discuss what happened to his son. It’s the story of a man whose prejudice was dismantled by personal tragedy, and then he used that as a teaching tool to try and impact the world. If what happened to Joe and Jadin could change one mind, the journey would be worth the trip.
With a history of violence in his own life and a reputation for macho movies that appeal to the kind of people who Joe Bell was trying to persuade, Wahlberg taking this role is fascinating on a meta level. Some have called it image rehabilitation, and there’s a sense at times that it’s a bit calculated on that level, but Wahlberg the actor breaks through just enough to feel genuine in the role. He smartly doesn’t lean into too much of the melodrama, more realistically playing Joe Bell as a man who’s even angrier now than he was when his son came out, but some of that anger is now directed inward. He turns his shame and regret into tools for change, and there are subtle beats in Wahlberg’s performance that other actors would have missed. He doesn’t turn Joe Bell into a completely different person because tragedy doesn’t change us completely as much as it refocuses who we were before.
The problem with “Good Joe Bell” is an overriding one in that the journey just feels too superficial. Everything here feels remarkably calculated for broadest demographic appeal, from the tragedy to the journey. Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana’s first script since “Brokeback Mountain” is at its best when it’s the most organic, but that’s incredibly rare. Scenes feel focus-grouped and refined down to a smooth surface for maximum impact, and the whole affair loses its humanity, which is what Joe and Jadin Bell’s story should remind us of most of all.
A very different father-and-son story unfolds in David Oyelowo’s directorial debut, a sweet, endearing fantasy movie about a young man who believes an urban legend is the path to saving his ill mother. Oyelowo has a really good eye, assisted by strong, vibrant cinematography from Matthew J. Lloyd (“Spider-Man: Far From Home”), and his movie has a big heart. Ultimately, “The Water Man” feels a little too slight—it doesn’t come together like I hoped it would after the very promising first act—but there’s enough to like to recommend watching it when it lands on a streaming service, and, most of all, to encourage Oyelowo to get behind the camera again.
The star of “Selma” plays Amos, who has a strained relationship with his creative son Gunner (Lonnie Chavis), who is increasingly unsettled by his mother’s illness. Gunner learns about the legend of the Water Man, a figure in the woods who may have healing power, and he sets out with a girl named Jo (Amiah Miller) to find him. From here, “The Water Man” alternates between Gunner & Jo’s journey and Amos’ attempts to find his missing son, helped by an officer played by Maria Bello. Rosario Dawson adds subtle humanity to the role of Gunner’s mother.
The TIFF description portrayed “The Water Man” as a descendant of ‘80s adventure family films, but it’s not quite there. Yes, the ‘80s films that so many people love blended mythology and family-friendly journeys, but Oyelowo’s not doing a “Super 8” thing here. He’s not openly cribbing from the Spielberg playbook as so many people have. He has own voice already, one that understands how to use the scope and beauty of the natural world. Without spoiling anything, I hoped the back half of “The Water Man” had a few more surprises, instead of playing out pretty much as one would expect that it would, but its heart and soul are always in the right place. If Oyelowo can find a slightly more ambitious script, he could really make waves as a director too.