Often, memoirs and the films made about them have a tendency to err on the side of self-indulgence, leaning too much into making their protagonist the hero or martyr of their own story. They can be eye-roll-inducing, meaning that settling in to watch a new one can be something of a gamble. The Tender Bar is a film where that gamble pays off, however, as it understands who its real heroes are, and despite it being a very personal story to its author, there is also potential for anyone to find a bit of themselves on the screen.
The Tender Bar is about young J.R. (Tye Sheridan), as he navigates his childhood and young adulthood, adopting father-figures along the way in the absence of his own. His most important role model is his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), whose lessons in life truly shape the man he becomes.
Standing in the sun
There is definitely a coming-of-age vibe to this film, and with that the usual nostalgia is very present. The vintage golden look that every frame has suggests that J.R. looks back on this entire period of his formative years and the people who were a part of them fondly, even if at the time he may not have felt the same way.
I also think this is where The Tender Bar established more subtly the type of film it wanted to be. For me, it was never really about celebrating J.R. and all of the challenges he had to overcome in order to become the writer he wanted to be. It was rarely about him feeling sorry for himself, or being held back by his circumstances. If anything, it was a love letter to those circumstances because it wasn’t lost on him that without them, he wouldn’t be the person you see in the film. The golden hue that enveloped so much of what was on-screen really gave the impression that he held a lot of affection for that period of his life; that he was thankful for the experiences it gave him and most importantly, looking back he felt that he was standing in the sun for a lot of it, as opposed to being under what could’ve been twisted to be the constant cloud that was his upbringing.
The Tender Bar is Ben Affleck’s film
I want to take a moment to acknowledge what a beautiful film this was for Ben Affleck to have been a part of, and the echoes it had of his role in Good Will Hunting all those years ago. Of all the father-figures and role models J.R. adopted throughout the course of his life, Uncle Charlie was number one, and he was a character that Affleck was an absolute champion in playing. Yes, it was a supporting role, but portrayed in such a way that it meant The Tender Bar became as much his film as anyone else’s, and made crystal clear too that he was the real hero of J.R.’s story.
The film’s biggest strength outside of its characters and performances, however, was that it was a personal story that could feel personal to everyone in some capacity, and also the underlying theme that you don’t necessarily have to become something or someone in spite of where you came from. Too often, I find that films like The Tender Bar are about their protagonists overcoming the odds and being an ultimate survivor – I dare say they overplay the struggles that they have to contend with at times. That’s not to say that J.R. didn’t face hardships throughout his life, but that they didn’t define him, and they didn’t become the driving factor behind him wanting to become a writer. I guess what I’m saying is it acknowledged that we are shaped by our experiences for better and for worse, but what we do beyond those experiences is entirely up to us.
Take me back to Uncle Charlie’s bar
I really enjoyed The Tender Bar. It thought it was a delightful coming-of-age tale that really could appeal to everyone, and is certainly a treat for Affleck fans. It is dripping with nostalgia in such a way that you will wish that you were back at Uncle Charlie’s bar despite never having been there yourself, and with it’s sunnier take that we can do things because we want to, and not because what’s come before says we have to, it is a breath of fresh air that I think these memoirs from people with upbringings outside of a traditional nuclear family background sorely needed.
Seeing as you’re here…
Why not read my review of The Many Saints Of Newark, 2021’s prequel film to The Sopranos?