Despite Underlying Sorrow, ‘The Tender Bar’ Is a Funny, Moving Portrait of Growing Up and Finding Home

The first shot of The Tender Bar says it all: a shabby car on a highway – carrying a young mother and her son – whose half-open trunk, stuffed with luggage, resembles a tired couch potato. The stereo plays a radio station – the mother switches it off; the son responds with a perplexed look. This is classic visual storytelling: We know that the impoverished duo is moving to a new place, notice the absence of the father, and understand that music has truly left their lives. We soon get the radio connection: the father is a radio jockey, absent for his own family yet present for his countless listeners, bringing music in their lives.

George Clooney’s latest directorial, streaming on Amazon Prime Video, is a story of growing up – a quest to find home and ‘make it’ – amid a cruel life turn: parental abandonment. The boy, JR (Daniel Ranieri), and his mother, Dorothy (Lily Rabe), move into his maternal grandfather’s hovel. She resents it – her father is a surly old man who was “stingy and miserly with love”, his place a reminder of her financial and marital ruin – but the boy loves it, for he has cousins for company, and the magic potion of a man whose mere presence signals possibilities, his buddy, his mentor, his literary guru: Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck in an outstanding performance).

A school dropout, Charlie couldn’t make it. He’s unmarried and lives with his parents. But JR notices that he is different from most adults, for he’s encouraging, charming and, unlike his father, always present. Charlie didn’t go to college, but he read – a lot – eventually owning a local bar, where the boy spent most of his childhood and college years, finding solace among its frequent patrons, the societal discards, the poor, the unlettered, the unemployed. Makes perfect sense: It takes one reject to know the other. Charlie instils in JR a love for reading – an eternal curiosity informing the name of his bar… The Dickens.

It was indeed the “worst of times” and the “best of times” – the parental pang pulling him down, the literary love lifting him up. Suffering from an “identity crisis” – his name, “Junior”, symbolising a filial association that never materialised – the boy lives under the pall of one story, defined not by what he has but what he lacks. Until one afternoon, Uncle Charlie reminds him something fundamental about life – that there is always an alternate story, that it doesn’t have to be what it was – opening a literal door of his cupboard storing hundreds of books, hundreds of stories. As if almost telling the boy, “Go, JR, choose a story, write a story.”

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It’s no surprise, then, that the movie is inspired by a memoir of the same name (by a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, J.R. Moehringer). Like most good stories, The Tender Bar transcends its brief. It is not just a bildungsroman but also a significant contemplation of the struggles endured by people like JR, especially class divide. The name of the bar is not a coincidence. Like the great English novelist, whose sympathetic portrayals of the working poor made him even more memorable, Charlie is aware of the dichotomous society his nephew will experience – the America of the ’70s and the ’80s – telling him to read George Orwell, the master chronicler of the “lower-upper-middle classes”, the “people who think they’re rich”. His mother, however, wants him to crack Yale and become a lawyer, do something that she and her brother couldn’t: leave the house.

One of the most striking things about The Tender Bar is that, despite a strong undercurrent of sorrow, it embodies the best qualities of Uncle Charlie: It is funny, pleasant, accessible. Adapted by an acclaimed screenwriter (William Monahan), the movie is wondrously light, distilling crucial information in a few scenes. The screenplay, for instance, establishes a major subplot, the romantic relationship between the adult JR (Ron Livingston) and his Yale flame Sidney (Briana Middleton), via three small sequences: He first sees her in his literature class, then drops her home after a party – in the early fall semester – where Sidney asks him out, followed by JR telling his mother that Sidney has invited him for Christmas. That’s it, economical with a capital-E.

The humour is as assured. Funny lines arrive like unannounced drunkards, real and raw. When JR’s Yale friend tells him, “Well, when you suck at writing, that’s when you become a journalist”, I laughed hard (#Touché). Clooney’s calm and focused approach elevates the story. This is not a film that is trying hard to impress – and yet, just scratch the surface, and you’ll find much to admire. So, if music leaves the boy’s initial life, then it returns, too, whenever Uncle Charlie is around – in the form of several soft-rock classics in the background – infusing the drama with a distinct life-like rhythm, where light and gloom co-exist.

Clooney also remains a distant (yet sympathetic) observer in pathos-ridden scenes, where sorrow hits us like an afterthought. In an early scene, the young JR’s grandfather accompanies him to a father-son lunch at school. When they return, we get a shot of the dapper old man and his content grandson in the car. It then cuts to Charlie looking at them through the window, presumably remembering his own discontent past. It is also a superb rumination on the aftermath of abandonment – and its vicious avatars. Even when JR gets into Yale, he still feels like a reject, telling his roommates that, “It feels like I’m on a break, a lucky break.” When he’s dropping Sidney home, she wonders whether he is struggling to overcome his “father-based trauma” – something she considers a “red flag”. Her exact motivations remain unknown, but she of course dumps him (not once, or twice, but multiple times), reinforcing a truism familiar to the likes of JR: that you get rejected for being rejected.

Such allusions mark the entire film – both direct and indirect, sombre and funny. A boy without a father, the adult JR keeps meeting an old man on a train, enjoying his company. What does the guy do? He’s a priest or, well, a ‘Father’. In a crucial thorny exchange with his own father – who is not identified by his name, just ‘The Voice’ – JR tells him to… “shut the fuck up”. The Tender Bar is truly universal, understanding two key facets of broken childhood: a kid’s growing confusion – a constant inability to understand his own story – and relentless fight.

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At the start of the film, when the young JR is waiting for his father to pick him up, who doesn’t show up, his unease is encapsulated by the accompanying voiceover (by his adult version): “That’s the thing to remember about a kid; the kid always thinks he’s fucked up.” (It reminded me of something similar once written by Jerry Pinto – a piercing motif in Em and the Big Hoom, too.) When JR is trying to find solace in writing, I was reminded of another novel, Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, whose protagonist, a young boy, tries to overcome his familial grief by reading Ernest Hemingway – and eventually becoming a writer. The warm conversations between JR and Charlie are even reminiscent of a coming-of-age Hindi drama, Udaan, where the young boy’s uncle plays a crucial role in the climax.

Towards the latter half, however, The Tender Bar becomes a victim of its own strength. At a runtime of 106 minutes, Clooney’s directorial feels a bit too slim, reluctant to interrogate its core. I craved more: JR’s college life (two-and-a-half years just zip by), relationship with Sidney (we hear more about it than see), evolving bond with Uncle Charlie (who vanishes for a bit in the third act) – even Charlie himself. It’s the only taint in an otherwise smart and endearing film.

Departing from a stale theme so common to a drama like this – the movie clarifies that JR does not see his father in Uncle Charlie – The Tender Bar is underpinned by a fascinating bond. What defines Charlie and JR? Uncle-nephew, mentor-mentee, barman-patron – or just friends? Does it matter? Because Uncle Charlie was all the boy had as a pre-teen, and he’s been around even more than a decade later, giving the young man his most prized possession, his old car, with a throwaway line and practiced nonchalance. The cursed circle is broken – at least for now – and the story is complete: JR drives away to find another story, another home.

This review was first published on The Wire. Read it here