In an era of superheroes, space dynasties, and psychological ruminations on identity, there’s something to be said for a straightforward coming-of-age story.
It’s too bad that The Tender Bar has nothing to say itself.
Based on the best-selling memoir of the same name, The Tender Bar follows the young life of JR Moehringer (Tye Sheridan), an aspiring writer growing up in Manhasset, New York, during the 80s. His adolescence and teenage years are spent primarily in the bar run by his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), who fills the paternal role that JR’s alcoholic biological father abandoned earlier. Haunted by his father’s absence, his humble beginnings, and the self-doubt stemming from both, JR seeks to make a name for himself — quite literally — and achieve his professional and romantic ambitions.
The Tender Bar tells a relatable story, but it feels slight. The film lacks a compelling narrative hook justifying why this story had to be told. JR seems nice enough: he’s precocious as a child and charming as a college student. However, his life feels unremarkable and lacks dramatic stakes. The plot never feels like it’s headed anywhere particularly interesting or unveiling something insightful about father figures, single parenthood, or the dubiousness of a child effectively being raised in a bar.
Without a significant dramatic throughline, The Tender Bar must rely on solid character relationships to pick up the narrative weight. Those are just as undercooked. JR’s relationship with Uncle Charlie has sweet moments, and his interactions with on-off girlfriend Sidney (Briana Middleton) have sparks. Unfortunately, the film rarely affords those relationships the space to breathe and pull us in.
Director George Clooney tries to give The Tender Bar the heft that the script lacks, but he struggles to cover the difference. The film’s rhythm is off from the start, meandering at some points before hopping to another place in time without reason. Even with a relatively short runtime, clocking in around an hour and 45 minutes, the inconsistent focus causes it to drag. Clooney does get the tone right, leaning into the film’s inherent sentimentality without necessarily hitting us over the head with it. He makes excellent use of songs from the era to evoke nostalgia that is effective as it is shameless.
Clooney also gets some great performances from the cast, easily the strongest aspect of the film. Ben Affleck’s performance as Uncle Charlie is particularly worthy of praise. Despite his star wattage, he imbues his character with an intense lived-in quality. For fans of Good Will Hunting, Charlie is like an extension of Chuckie: grizzled, wiser, but just as concerned for his loved ones. As much “regular guy” energy as he emanates, Affleck holds your attention, even when he’s off-screen. JR’s weak characterization could’ve tripped up Tye Sheridan, but he acts well through the script’s limitations. Like his on-screen uncle, Sheridan feels like a movie star, exhibiting charisma and chemistry with everyone, especially the deceptively luminous Briana Middleton.
At its best, The Tender Bar is an extended, somewhat elevated episode of the television classic The Wonder Years. They share the same vibe: a warm look back at the past and how it shaped the person one eventually becomes. Sadly, the fictionalized version of JR Moehringer is no Kevin Arnold. The weakness of the central character permeates the entire film, hollowing it into a serviceable but wholly unremarkable effort.
The Tender Bar is streaming on Amazon Prime.