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 everyone around him and to everyone that I’ve talked to,” Miller said.
Dustin said he thought Miller did an incredible job capturing the essence of his brother in “Joe Bell.” He said the grieving process for his family is “continual,” and he hopes that the movie reaches an audience that might not usually think about these issues.
“I just hope that it influences people to be more open minded and not judgmental and more accepting of people from different walks of life,” he said.
Lathrop released a statement to the La Grande School District ahead of the film, writing that “not everything on the screen occurred in real life.”
“But that misses the important message,” she said in the statement. “I hope that the message this movie sends will make us all more vigilant, and inclined to safeguard the well-being of young people who deserve the opportunity to thrive.”
‘I know that you’re with me on this walk’
Bell told Salon in 2013 that he and Jadin went to the school about the bullying, but he said that the school didn’t suspend one of the main bullies until three weeks after Jadin’s death, and only after the student started bullying someone else.
The La Grande School District has not responded to a request for comment regarding that incident, but in response to the movie’s upcoming release, the district issued an in-depth statement about the resources it offers to students who are in crisis and LGBTQ students seeking support, such as counseling.
“Our district’s commitment is to ensure we have a positive and inclusive school experience in which all students can thrive academically within an affirming school community,” part of the district’s statement read. “Furthermore, it is our responsibility as professionals to provide a safe and caring setting for every student.”
In addition, a La Grande senior started the school’s first club for LGBTQ students in the spring of 2013, just a few months after Jadin’s death.
Jadin’s death was one of multiple suicides among LGBTQ young people that made national news around that time. On Sept. 19, 2010, Seth Walsh, a gay 13-year-old living in Southern California, died by suicide after being bullied. Three days later, Tyler Clementi, a gay student at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, killed himself after being recorded on a webcam kissing another man. Two more teens, 14-year-old Kenneth Weishuhn and 17-year old Josh Pacheco also died by suicide in similar circumstances.
Bell resigned from his job and began his walk in April 2013. He documented his journey on Facebook, where he wrote in May 2013, “I miss my son Jadin with all my heart and soul … I know that you’re with me on this walk.”
After Bell died, people took up his cause for him, sharing photos of themselves on Facebook on walks in his honor and to share his message.
Since then, more schools have adopted anti-bullying policies and better support systems for LGBTQ students, with some states codifying the protections in law. At least 21 states have laws that prohibit bullying on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit LGBTQ think tank. The remaining states prohibit bullying on the basis of sexual orientation only, have district-specific policies or have no law at all.
Bell also wanted schools to provide suicide prevention training for all counselors. As of 2021, about half of the states mandate annual suicide prevention training for school personnel, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Anthony Ramos, head of talent at GLAAD, an LGBTQ advocacy group, said the Bells’ story is an important one for people to see and understand.
“Given that the film is lead by such a high-profile, big budget movie star and that it is now available to people in theatres, there is a real potential for many to have their eyes opened to the disproportionate amount of bullying and harassment that so many LGBTQ youth endure and to also witness a parent’s road to acceptance for their own child, and deep regret for not doing so sooner,” Ramos said in an emailed statement to NBC News.
Nearly 70 percent of students have reported experiencing verbal harassment at school based on their sexual orientation, and more than half said they experienced this type of harassment based on their gender expression (57 percent) or gender identity (54 percent), according to GLSEN, which advocates for LGBTQ students. Almost half of students also reported experiencing electronic harassment in 2019 via text messages or postings on Facebook, also known as cyberbullying.
Miller said he also hopes all parents teach their children that words are powerful.
“Whether they’re said or whether they’re typed, words can be devastating, or they can be lifesaving,” he said. “People need to understand that words have weight and are really powerful and can profoundly damage someone beyond repair.”
A 2019 survey from the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth suicide prevention nonprofit group, found that youth who have at least one accepting adult in their life were 40 percent less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year.
LGBTQ youth who are facing battles similar to Jadin’s, Miller said, should know that “there are people who love and fight every day for them.”
“The fight is always still on and there will always be support, and hopefully one day we get to a place where we don’t have to fight that fight anymore, where everyone can feel free to be whoever, whatever they want,” he said.