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Tender Bar poster

The Tender Bar

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What it’s about:

Based on the bestselling memoir by J.R. Moehringer, The Tender Bar is the wistful story of a boy growing up in 70s and 80s Long Island who, despite a complicated relationship with his absentee father, thrives under the watchful eye of his determined single mother and beloved Uncle Charlie.

Names you might know:

The film stars Ben Affleck (The Way Back), Daniel Ranieri, Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One), Lily Rabe (American Horror Story), Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future). It was directed by George Clooney (The Midnight Sky), with a screenplay adapted by William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven).

Why it’s worth your time:

Come for the reminder that Ben Affleck is actually a good actor, stay for a warm story of a boy growing up in both terribly familiar and oddly unusual circumstances.

When JR’s mother Dorothy (Rabe) is evicted from their apartment, she has no choice but to return to her childhood home in Long Island. She sees it as an abject failure, but 11-year-old JR (Ranieri) is thrilled—his aunt and cousins also live there, so there are plenty of kids to play with. But the best part is that his Uncle Charlie (Affleck), the most wholesome “fun” uncle you could ever have, is there, too. “When you’re 11 years old,” an older JR voice-overs, “you want an Uncle Charlie.” Charlie takes the boy under his wing and his bar, The Dickens, becomes a sort of refuge for JR (which stands for “Junior,” a constant and sore reminder of his deadbeat dad). As the bar’s name implies, Charlie is a book lover—a trait he shares with his nephew—and he becomes the male role model JR is sorely lacking. JR has only seen his real father, a radio DJ, a few times in his life. He calls him “The Voice” because the only connection he has to him is through his radio shows. This is a man who has never made a promise or commitment he didn’t break.

As a coming-of-age story, The Tender Bar stands out not only because of the strongly drawn characters and performances, but also for the lack of trauma as JR’s story progresses. It’s an interesting approach for this particular genre, especially one in which so many scenes take place in a bar. JR’s family, aside from his alcoholic father, is solid, supportive, and nurturing. Even his curmudgeonly grandfather (Lloyd)—who seems to be in the early stages of dementia and puts on a show of resenting his adult children for returning home—is there for JR when he needs him. Violence does occur when JR’s father shows up, but it’s off screen and the experience is framed as another life lesson for JR. Everyone who hears his story assumes he must have daddy issues, but the truth is he never feels a lack thanks to the other strong male role models in his life. And by the time he’s grown it’s pretty clear JR was better off without him anyway.

Charlie is essential here, encouraging his nephew to focus on what he’s good at and enjoys—reading and writing stories. Charlie also introduces JR to the “male sciences,” a series of rules to follow to be a good, stand-up man. Don’t drink if you can’t manage your life around it. Watch your money, take care of your mother. Don’t hit a woman, stick to your commitments and promises. Even if you didn’t have an Uncle Charlie yourself, you know this guy, just as you know a Dorothy, and even a JR (full confession: I was JR, without the local bar). Clooney cultivates the strong chemistry between Affleck and his young co-stars, especially Ranieri, who is a revelation in his first major role. He has a great career ahead of him, if he wants it.

Tye Sheridan takes over the role of JR as a teenager and takes him believably into adulthood. As a boy, JR’s mother insisted that he would go to Harvard or Yale, which holds sway over him, and the film follows JR through his college years, where he mingles with the upper classes, falls in love, and gets his heart pounded into the ground over and over again. College also paves the road for his ultimate dream—to be a professional writer, a desire that was honed in his uncle’s bar, reading all the books Charlie had stacked on the walls.  Who knew that practically being raised in a bar could be so wholesome?

The takeaway:

Director George Clooney has created a compelling movie with characters that are relatable and easy to root for. The Tender Bar manages to have the emotional depth of any other Oscar contender, but without the expected sadness, or sturm and drang. It’s a relief, really.

From AP’s Mark Kennedy:  “Tender Bar’ is a gentle, oddly crafted but loving look at men, fueled by a soundtrack of classics…It’s a valentine to guys who step up.”  Read the review.

Watch it with:

A streaming buddy or a date. It’s less than two hours long, so it’s an easy watch.

Worth noting:

The Tender Bar reunites Ben Affleck and George Clooney, who directed, starred, and produced Argo, which won the Academy Award for best picture in 2012.  The soundtrack is already a hit.

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