In the history of movies, there’s no shortage of stories with deadbeat or inattentive fathers. For whatever reasons — patriarchy, jobs taking them away from their families, alcoholism — the idea of bad fathers has had a much larger place in storytelling than good fathers. Fortunately, there are also films like The Tender Bar, in which a bad father can be counteracted by other people in a child’s life.
Based on the memoir by J.R. Moehringer, the film follows J.R. as both a child (Daniel Ranieri) and a teenager (Tye Sheridan) as he grows up on Long Island. He and his mother (Lily Rabe) live with his grandparents (Christopher Lloyd and Sondra James), who head a large tight-knit family that includes J.R.’s Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck).
Because J.R.’s father — known only as “The Voice” because he’s on the radio — rarely comes around, Charlie takes J.R. under his wing. Charlie owns a neighborhood bar, and he lets J.R. visit whenever he wants, resulting in a variety of lessons he’d never learn in school. But J.R. also excels at school, giving his family hope that he’ll escape the cycle that keeps them stuck on Long Island.
Directed by George Clooney and written by William Monahan, the film contains some keenly observed storytelling that lets multiple characters shine even when they’re not the focus of attention. The film jumps back and forth in time on multiple occasions, but the structure of the scenes, the funny and insightful dialogue, and the performances by the actors combine to provide much depth to the various relationships.
Most of that stems from the bond between J.R. and Charlie. Although the language they use with each other would raise more than a few eyebrows among polite society, Charlie is fiercely protective of J.R., and his unorthodox behavior is still leaps and bounds better than his actual father’s. Clooney and his team nail every moment between the two of them, creating an indelible pair in the process.
Although Clooney the actor has had big success through the years, Clooney the director has been hit and miss. But he finds his sweet spot here, pacing the film well and knowing when to push the emotion and when to hold back. The only slight misstep was including voiceover by the adult J.R. (Ron Livingston), something that comes off as more schmaltzy than it needs to be.
The acting in the film is fantastic across the board. Affleck’s movie star roles and off-screen relationships have overshadowed what a good actor he is, something he’s shown on multiple occasions in the past two years. Sheridan has never been better, perhaps because it’s fun to compare and contrast him with the newcomer Ranieri, who’s impossibly cute. All of the supporting characters do great work, even people playing barflies.
The Tender Bar is funny and heartwarming, but it rises above your typical feel-good kind of film. Not everyone will have the kind of relationship that J.R. and Charlie have in this film, but it’s great that a movie like this exists so we can share space with them, if only for a little while.
The Tender Bar is now playing in select theaters. It debuts on Amazon Prime Video on January 7.