It’s comforting that not everything is different this year at TIFF. The lineup may be smaller and the screenings may be online, but the programmers have preserved at least one essential hallmark of the festival experience: well-intentioned but drippy social-issue dramas based on true stories and starring earnest movie stars. The earnest star this year is Mark Wahlberg, and he’s been cast as the title character of Good Joe Bell (Grade: C), about a father who embarks on a cross-country walking tour, from small-town Oregon to New York City, to speak out against bullying like the kind his gay teenage son endured in school. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters And Men), the film has its heart in the right place, but its head is foggy and possibly concussed; it seems uncertain how to reshape its ripped-from-the-headlines story into satisfying drama—though that story may be broadly sad and inspiring enough to put it in contention for the Grolsch People’s Choice Award anyway, given the dearth of crowd-pleasing competition this TIFF.
We meet Wahlberg’s scruffy good-old-boy dad Joe on the open road, pushing a cart of clothes and belongings down the highway. By his side is his son, Jadin (a very good Reid Miller), who tags along to high-school assemblies where his father clumsily (and quite briefly) extols the importance of accepting everyone for who they are. Even when not on stage, Joe’s got one hand in his wallet, ready to pass strangers at the local diner a card advertising his anti-hate message. The screenplay, by Brokeback Mountain Oscar winners Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, intercuts this pilgrimage with flashbacks to months earlier, when Jadin came out to his father. Those who know the full story of what the Bell family went through will either be very confused by the film’s early scenes or suspect what it’s bending over backwards to conceal from the audience. I won’t spoil the twist for those who don’t know, but I will gently suggest that there even being a twist to this story isn’t the most tasteful choice.
For Wahlberg, the role almost looks like community service. Not to put too fine of a point on it, but he’s a Hollywood heavyweight with some hate crime in his past; seeing him play a character who’s walking the country to preach tolerance does create the temptation to read Good Joe Bell as a vague act of atonement-through-performance. Mostly, though, he’s not quite up to what the part requires of him—the mix of conviction and guilt that drives Joe’s quest. He seems right for the role only when the film is flirting, early on, with becoming a buddy comedy about a father trying to connect with his son; Wahlberg’s comedic chops take a little of the cornball cringe out of a scene of the gruff Joe surprising Jadin by joining him on the chorus of “Born This Way.”
Most of the problems with Good Joe Bell really stem from how it’s chosen to tell this tragic story. Though Joe is supposedly crossing America to educate and have empathetic discussions, the film devises curiously few encounters for him. (This could partially be a product of the fact that it’s hiding certain information from us for a bit—again, a dumb approach.) More detrimentally, the script seems reluctant to address Joe’s own homophobia; his march for redemption is supposedly inspired by the feeling that he wasn’t supportive enough, but the flashbacks mainly just emphasize Wahlberg’s signature, perpetual irritation at everything, barely communicating at all how he feels about his son being gay. Maybe that’s true to the real Joe or to many parents like him: Not every father who fails their kid during the difficult coming-out period of their life is a disapproving tyrant. But Good Joe Bell is a redemption story that barely attempts to understand why its protagonist needs redemption. It’s a paper-napkin sketch of a drama, the soul searching never shaded in.
When it comes to star showcases, I much prefer French playwright Florian Zeller’s first feature, The Father (Grade: B), which got a quiet reception at Sundance back in the blessed before times of January. Zeller, who’s adapted his own play, is tackling a subject that’s been covered almost ad nauseam by the movies: the difficult question of what to do when a loved one begins to lose their mental faculties. (We even got a horror-film take on the subject this year.) The hook of The Father is that it explores this all-too-common nightmare from the entirely subjective perspective of the person with dementia—in this case, Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), an elderly man resisting the assistance being foisted upon him by his grown, concerned daughter (Olivia Colman). Anthony insists he doesn’t need a caregiver, but it’s not just his memory that’s getting hazy; basic details about his life—where he lives, who his daughter is married to, what his daughter even looks like—have begun to blur.
Unlike a couple other theatrical adaptations playing TIFF this year, The Father makes little attempt to disguise its stage origins; the fact that the action is confined entirely to one flat is very much essential to the story’s design. (There are no tacked on scenes of the characters running off to the store to “open up” the material.) Zeller uses the intrinsically cinematic tools of editing and composition to enhance the disorientation, but the film’s central strategy to that end is straight from the play: Different actors keep entering, insisting they’re characters we’ve already met, while information delivered in dialogue is constantly contradicted. It’s a smart conceptual ploy that works to put us right into Anthony’s confused headspace, the film creating a frighteningly unreliable sense of reality. And The Father benefits immensely from Hopkins’ performance, which is among his most heartbreakingly vulnerable, in part because it briefly conjures the ghost of the actor at his most erudite and intelligent and dominant, than strips that away with the cruel indifference of dementia itself. Now that’s how you properly exploit a movie star persona.