Joe Bell is a family man, through and through. He loves hunting, fishing, and the great outdoors. But more than anything, he’s devoted to the family he’s raising in the small town of La Grande, Oregon.
And then, in an instant, his life is turned upside down: Joe’s teenage son Jadin comes out as gay and admits to his father that he’s being bullied at school.
Joe’s initially angry, threatening to give Jadin’s bullies a piece of his mind, physically as well as verbally. All Jadin really wants, however, is his father’s acceptance—an acceptance Joe gives, though with some internal reservations.
Joe would be lying if he said it didn’t make him uncomfortable that Jadin has joined his high school cheerleading team. He would be lying if he said he wasn’t very aware of what the other people in his small community thought about him having a gay son. And no matter how hard he tries to pretend that it doesn’t bother him, Jadin can tell exactly how his father feels—and it’s that disapproval, along with the constant harassment Jadin endures at school and his teachers’ unwillingness to help, that leads the 15-year-old to commit suicide.
That was nine months ago. Now, Joe, griefstricken after his son’s death, is on a mission to cross the United States on foot, spreading a message of love and tolerance and hoping to prevent what happened to Jadin from happening to anybody else. “Kindness is the most important attribute a person can have,” he tells a group of listeners.
And yet, for all his talk of inclusion and decency, whether Joe actually practices what he preaches—and whether he’ll be able to forgive himself for his role in his son’s death—remains to be seen.
It may be somewhat flawed, and he may not be invested in it wholeheartedly at first, but Joe’s message is a good one. He tells parents to love their children unconditionally and tells younger adults that their words can have consequences. “People need to understand how hurtful it is to harass and torment people who aren’t the same as you,” he says.
Joe’s relationship with Jadin is complicated, but it’s unmistakable how much he really loves him. He tries to understand what he’s going through and wants Jadin to defend himself against those bullying him. After an argument about Jadin practicing his cheerleading in full view of the neighbors, Joe approaches him and says, “I’m gonna try to be better. I love you.”
While visiting a gay bar in Salt Lake City, Joe listens to one of the patrons discuss growing up in the Church. He tells a story about a sermon his pastor gave in which he said that “all gays are going to hell,” leading him to abandon the church and his faith. Joe responds with a story about a similar experience Jadin had while visiting a church with a friend. He also mentions the issue of child molestation in the Catholic church. “It’s hard to stand strong in a place where there are more churches than there are gays,” the man says to Joe. “This place [the bar] is like a church too.”
A pastor visiting the Bells after Jadin’s death prays before dinner. Joe and Jadin sing the song “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga together, including the lyrics, “He made you perfect babe,” and “God makes no mistakes.”
Jadin attends a high school party celebrating Halloween.
A large portion of the plot deals with Jadin’s same-sex attraction. Some of the boys at school make crude references to homosexual sex while bullying him. Jadin briefly kisses another boy at a party, though their relationship doesn’t go much farther due to the boy being afraid to come out to his parents.
A scene takes place in a gay bar, where a man dressed in drag openly flirts with Joe. Joe kisses his wife, Lola, a few times. Girls wear low cut outfits at a Halloween party, and and we see some high school boys shirtless in a locker room.
Jadin is physically bullied by some of his classmates at school. Initially, they just push him around, but it escalates to a disturbing scene in a locker room in which they surround him and jostle him around forcefully.
Jadin’s suicide is not shown, but we do briefly see his body in the aftermath; his legs are seen hanging from a swing set.
The f-word and the s-word are each used around 20 times. “D–n,” “h—,” and “a–” are heard around 10 times each, with “b-ch,” (most often used in the phrase “son of a b–ch,”) appearing four times. God’s name is misused six times.
Offensive language such as the f-slur is also used, mostly by the school bullies in reference to Jadin.
Joe drinks a beer at the gay bar, and underage teenagers drink underage at a Halloween party. Lola struggles with excessive alcohol use in the aftermath of Jadin’s death; we don’t see her drinking, but Joe implores her to stop it for the sake of their other son, Joseph.
A boy at the party invites Jadin downstairs to smoke cigarettes with him. He goes, but he doesn’t smoke. We later see him smoking outside his house, however. His mother Lola also lights up a few throughout the film.
Joe struggled with aggression and anger issues even before Jadin’s death, but the loss of his son only heightened his problems. He often ends up taking out his anger on his family. During one of his outbursts, he screams and swears at his son Joseph just for leaving the toilet seat up. He’s attempting to address his anger issues, which Lola insists he does before returning home from his journey across America.
Joe also wrestles with forgiveness, particularly when it comes to the bullies at Jadin’s school. Lola shows him a note one of the boys left on Jadin’s grave apologizing for how he treated him, which only serves to infuriate Joe. “One of [them] had the nerve to stand over his grave? And now he wants to apologize?” he fumes. “There’s no forgiveness here.”
How does one describe the thematic and ethical conundrum that is Joe Bell?
At its heart, it’s a story about a father’s unconditional love for his son, and the need for kindness in a world soured by animosity and hatred. Joe recognizes that he wasn’t there for Jadin when he should have been and wants to rectify his failings by doing his part to prevent the tragedy from happening to anyone else.
And yet, despite its honorable intentions, the film also suffers from an enormous setback: “Just let your kids be who they are, and it’ll all be fine,” Joe tells an attentive audience.
The issue of “being who you are” is one that pervades through not just this film, but through all of modern culture. The Bible teaches that we are naturally fallen, incapable of goodness apart from Christ. Our natural inclination is to sin, and it’s only through salvation that we have any hope of returning to the true path. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” Romans 3:23 says.
Joe Bell is based on true events—there was a Jadin Bell of La Grande, Oregon, and his death in 2013 sparked national outrage over the treatment of young people who identified as part of the LGBT community. Jadin was a casualty of a culture in dire need of correcting; too many just like him, young and old, have been victim to the same bullying and harassment Joe tried so hard to amend.
But Joe Bell has created a world in which everyone falls into one of two categories: accepting and approving or hateful and judgmental. The same film that tells the audience to love people not to judge based on generalizations is the same film that uses the actions of one misguided pastor to represent the entire Church. Joe finds solace in a local sheriff who wonders whether he was too hard on his gay son, explaining himself by saying, “I was raised Christian, after all.” As if to be raised Christian is the same as being raised to hate.
Much like the man himself, Joe Bell has a good heart but struggles to show it. Its themes of kindness, love and fatherhood are spoiled by resentment toward the Church and aversion to the truth of Scripture, not to mention the constant stream of profanity and same-sex content.
Joe might have gotten a few things right, but there’s a whole lot that he didn’t—and parents should be aware of it before setting off on his journey with him.
Lauren Cook is serving as a 2021 summer intern for the Parenting and Youth department at Focus on the Family. She is studying film and screenwriting at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. You can get her talking for hours about anything from Star Wars to her family to how Inception was the best movie of the 2010s. But more than anything, she’s passionate about showing how every form of art in some way reflects the Gospel. Coffee is a close second.