A wide-eyed little boy gets off a car with his single mother and the two move into his grandfather’s place. For the mother, living in her father’s house is a daily reminder of personal failures, but for her young son, nothing feels more like home. Directed by George Clooney, the 2021 movie ‘The Tender Bar’ is the coming-of-age tale of a boy called JR, whose uncle inspires him to become a writer.
Daniel Ranieri plays the young JR, he is almost Bambi-like, an innocent deer learning to grow up in the forest. Ben Affleck plays his mentor, uncle Charlie, who runs a bar called “The Dickens”, and keeps handing down philosophical tips to his nephew. “Don’t look for your father to save you,” is one of his first pearls of wisdom. Affleck in this film is an interesting cross between Jim Carrey and Matthew McConaughey, with a distinct Southern accent and a love for literature. He gets to play the kind of uncle any kid would be happy to have. Uncle Charlie is intuitive, supportive and gives JR a shelf full of books to read and is always by his side in times of need.
While the ‘absent father’ is a strong theme, what this movie captures best is the working class aspiration of wanting to lead a better life and achieving that dream through sheer determination and hard-work. Actor Lily Rabe who plays JR’s mom is the underrated hero of the film. She has an indomitable spirit and is a constant cheerleader in her son’s life, always encouraging the boy, determined that he would get into one of the best universities in the world. More often than not, parents sub-consciously beat their children down, but not JR’s mom. Rabe gives a heartwarming performance, even though her screen-time is relatively small.
Things get slightly shaky towards the second-half, where an older college boy JR is played by Tye Sheridan. From an aspiring writer, JR turns into your regular Romeo, chasing after a girl he fancies like a lost pup. There’s a some class-clash that JR has to deal with, but his romantic life makes for a rather mundane watch on the screen. While the first half of the film focused on the theme of a little boy looking for father figures in men around him, the makers change the goal-post and make it about a lovelorn youth trying to (quite poorly) get a grip over his life.
It feels like director Clooney’s vision for the story gets a little clouded as the story progresses and things just don’t seem charming anymore. That said, ‘The Tender Bar’ still makes for a good one-time-watch, with some great performances. They should’ve probably given Daniel Ranieri more space, that little boy is the heart of this film, the one makes viewers invested in the tale in the first place.
It’s a 6.5/10 from me. The film is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
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