Watching 100 coming of age stories set in different time periods every year is a rite of passage…or something like that. Every so often, we get one that stands out from the crowd. The Tender Bar has all the right stuff on paper, but never excels beyond its peers.
Partially raised in a bar, J.R.’s story is encompassed by an attempt to survive after his deadbeat father skips out. The capable Tye Sheridan (and Daniel Ranieri as a young version) is J.R., Lily Rabe plays his mother Dorothy, and Ben Affleck is his uncle Charlie.
That’s pretty much The Tender Bar in a nutshell: it’s a sometimes-saccharine slice of life film. J.R. grows up, and tries to be successful, he deals with some conflict, then it’s over. I know I’m painting some broad strokes that can apply to a lot of similar movies, but given the abrupt ending and lack of a true arc, I’d say it’s apt. Some of the story is filled in via voice-over, something the film would have significantly benefited from just cutting entirely.
The Tender Bar jumps around in just about every sense. JR’s life is a whirlwind. He’s young, then we jump ahead and he’s older. Then he’s young again. He sees his asshole father that’s clearly an asshole, doesn’t see him for a while, and then meets him again. We never get to dwell on any point of JR’s journey, as he bounces around from person to person; with fleeting performances even by the core cast. It lacks the focus of the memoire of the same name because the characters aren’t as impactful.
“The Tender Bar has all the right stuff on paper, but never excels beyond its peers.”
J.R., frankly, is not that interesting or exceptional in this version of the story. He overcomes some odds, and there is a sense of classism to this tale. You do feel for him as a young boy. Yet, eventually, J.R. is responsible for his own choices, many of which are inconsequential, despite the spirited performance to sell us on them by Sheridan.
Once I hit the credits, I wanted to see more of Affleck and Rabe. The former exudes effortless worldliness, to the point where I’d consider watching a TV show about Uncle Charlie. Rabe has a seething hatred inside her, but never once overplays her hand to the point of caricatures: a sin so many other similar performers have committed before her.
The Tender Bar feels like a prestige film that had some of the prestige edited out. Between the annoying voice-over and the copy and paste soundtrack of popular tunes, the film is scrunched and loses its heart.