A boy (Daniel Ranieri, Tye Sheridan) abandoned by his father grows up with a cool uncle (Ben Affleck) in The Tender Bar.
The Tender Bar is a bittersweet coming-of-age story about growing up with an absent father. Director George Clooney adapts the film from the memoir by J.R. Moehringer. We first see the author as a boy, and then as a reserved teenager going to Yale. The Tender Bar is quite moving at times with sentimental performances from Tye Sheridan and Ben Affleck. The film does a good job of establishing bonds between the primary characters. It loses focus in the third act by drawing out a somewhat obvious resolve. That said, the overall tone builds endearment and affinity for the author’s journey to adulthood.
The Tender Bar takes place initially in early 1970s Long Island. A disappointed and frustrated Dorothy (Lily Rabe) has to move back into her parent’s house with her young son, J.R. (Daniel Ranieri). They have been abandoned by his radio deejay father (Max Martini), who shows no interest in his son. J.R. is thrilled to be in a bustling household. He idolizes his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), a local bartender with a quirky assortment of barfly friends. J.R. listens to his detached father’s voice on the radio.
Charlie notices J.R.’s love of reading and books. He prods the boy to start writing. Years later, the teenaged J.R. (Tye Sheridan) wonders what to do with his life. His mother’s dream was for him to attend Yale University. A reluctant J.R. applies with the financial and emotional support of his beloved uncle. When J.R. gets his response from Yale, he realizes a need to reconnect with his father. J.R. struggles to leave the emotional safety of his family. He’s even more disappointed to discover his drunk and abusive father.
Ben Affleck nails his portrayal of Uncle Charlie. Every child needs an adult they can trust and confide in. Charlie is a surrogate father, best friend, and shoulder to lean on. The scenes between Affleck and young Daniel Ranieri will make your heart flutter. They lay the foundation for J.R.’s more adult problems later on. The need to please his mother and find out why his father left them opens a cavernous void. Feelings of inadequacy and low self esteem constantly trouble the author. The film chronicles his difficulties confronting and overcoming them.
George Clooney treads sappy and melodramatic when J.R. grows up. The author becomes a lovelorn wreck over a highly manipulative girl (Brianna Middleton). The wonderment of boyhood turns into a soap opera. This transition needed to be handled more tactfully. It has to be addressed, but runs way too long and obsessive. Clooney needed to trim the third act. He somewhat kneecaps his feel-good ending.
The Tender Bar largely succeeds in its emotional goals. J.R. Moehringer’s story is not uncommon. Who doesn’t remember their cool uncle who taught them the down and dirty truths of life? The core relationship that fuels the film is honest and believable. It rescues the film from a subpar third act. The Tender Bar is produced by Smokehouse Pictures and Amazon Studios. It will have a limited theatrical release on December 17th, then a national rollout on December 22nd. The Tender Bar will be available to stream January 7th on Prime Video.
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