In April 2013, Joe Bell left his home in La Grande, a small town in the northeast corner of Oregon, to walk across the country in honor of his 15-year-old son, Jadin, who had died in February a few weeks after attempting suicide.
Bell and his wife, Lola Lathrop, told local and national news outlets at the time that Jadin was bullied for being gay, both online and at school. After his son’s death in a hospital in Portland, Oregon, Bell and family friends started Faces for Change, an anti-bullying organization. He planned to walk across the country to New York City — where Jadin had talked about living — and speak to students, school administrators and others about the effects of bullying.
Six months into his planned two-year journey by foot, however, Bell was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer on U.S. 40, a two-lane highway in eastern Colorado.
The family’s tragic story inspired “Joe Bell,” a movie debuting Friday starring Mark Wahlberg as Bell, Connie Britton as Lathrop and Reid Miller as Jadin.
The true story behind the film is complicated, and “Joe Bell” attempts to portray the real-life nuances. Miller, 21, said that while Bell accepted his son, he didn’t really understand him, and he struggled to support him.
Bell told the outlet Salon after Jadin’s death that he felt somewhat responsible for not doing more to support his son and noted that he had yelled at Jadin for smoking the night before he tried to kill himself.
The grieving father’s walk, and one of the major themes of the movie, is about redemption, Miller said.
“I think Joe learned a lot about himself, and I feel like his legacy is that anyone can change … and that through love and through understanding, everyone can be given a second chance,” he said. The film “is about redemption and about coming back from a place that is not an easy place to be in, but it’s a place that you can still come out of nonetheless with love and the right people around you.”
‘A very special human being’
Jadin stood out in his small town of about 13,000. He was the only out gay student at La Grande High School. He told his father that he wanted to move to New York City one day to study fashion or photography, according to The New York Times.
Jadin’s older brother, Dustin, told NBC News that he was “a very special human being.”
“I feel like no matter where he was or what room he walked into, he just lit it up,” Dustin said. “He was just very outgoing and just very much himself.”
Dustin, 32, says one memory he has of Jadin is from February 2008, the day before the older sibling shipped out to the military. The Bell family had a Super Bowl party to watch the New York Giants play the New England Patriots, who were heavily favored to win.
“My brother used to love teasing me,” Dustin said. “He’s very antagonistic, and because he was the younger child, he always got his way.”
During the fourth quarter, Jadin was playing with the remote, “and I kept telling him to ‘set down the remote, set down the remote,’ and he never did,” he recalled.
Then, Jadin dropped the remote. The TV turned off, and the batteries fell out of the remote. By the time they turned it back on, Dustin said, they missed the last minute and a half of the game, during which the Giants came back and won in what is considered one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
Jadin looked shocked and quickly ran away, he added.
Then, in February 2013, on the day Jadin died, Dustin said his favorite team, the San Francisco 49ers, were playing in the Super Bowl. During that game, the lights in New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome went out a few minutes after the Baltimore Ravens took the lead.
“That’s one of my favorite stories,” Dustin said. “I was like, ‘it’s just my brother messing with me again.’”
Both Dustin and Miller said Jadin was never shy about being himself. In addition to being the only out gay student at his school, he was also the only boy on the cheerleading squad, and Bell told Salon in 2013 that he was bullied for it.
Miller said he could relate to Jadin and his story, because he was also bullied growing up in Texas. He was an artist “living in a place where it was either sports — football — or nothing,” and he was smaller than most people his age.
“It really resonated with me because, as someone who grew up in a small town who felt very misunderstood and … unheard by friends and people outside of my family, [it] felt very isolating and very alienating,” he said.
In order to prepare for the role, Miller said he listened to Jadin’s iPod and spoke to his family and friends. He met Jadin’s mother while he was wearing her son’s clothing.
“Even though he was in this amount of pain and he felt so alone, he was so strong in what he believed in and who he was, and that had such an impact on…