The Tender Bar And Seeing Yourself On The Silver Screen

George Clooney, known as one of the better and most prolific actors of his time, is once again back behind the camera with Amazon's "The Tender Bar." With Ben Affleck winning a lot of praise for his supporting role as Uncle Charlie, the movie has garnered at least some discussion as we head into awards season, though critical opinion on the adaptation of J.R. Moehringer's memoir of the same name has garnered more mixed reviews overall. That being the case, I wasn't exactly sure what to expect when I sat down for an early screening of Clooney's latest. What I got was something that can't be predicted, or even really shared with any other moviegoer.

The movie centers on J.R. (Tye Sheridan), a boy with an absent father being raised by his loving mother who winds up growing up in the glow of his uncle Charlie's bar. All the while, he's living at his grandparents' and dreams of becoming a writer one day, though his family pressures him to go to a top-notch college to become a lawyer.

With this tale, I was treated to an utterly personal reflection of my life (albeit an imperfect one) that left a lasting impression on me the way few movies can for any lover of cinema. While filmmakers certainly attempt to craft characters that are relatable, especially in a down-to-Earth drama such as this, it's impossible for them to know that, in some cases, they are going to be looking an audience member right in the eyes to offer them an emotionally affecting expression of their own life experience. Accidental though this may be, seeing yourself in such a way on the silver screen gets to the heart of the magic of movies, and why even the most unassuming film can become a treasured totem of pop culture for someone such as myself.

Seeing Your Life On Screen

I've truly enjoyed some of George Clooney's work as a director, particularly "Good Night, and Good Luck," the 2005 Edward R. Murrow biopic that gave me a hero I didn't know I needed years before I entered journalism. I also have truly loved Affleck as an actor, especially after he began directing and started churning out remarkably compelling performances on screen. See "The Town," "The Way Back," and even his brief cameo in "Jay and Silent Bob Reboot." So I was curious to see "The Tender Bar" for myself to see what led to the divisive critical response.

What I quickly realized is that I was never going to be able to judge this movie in an objective manner, as I saw not only myself, but some remarkably important and personal parts of my life reflected on the screen in a way that cut through me like a warm knife through butter. Seeing this play out cinematically, as a man who truly loves movies more than most other things, was downright cathartic. I cried at moments that wouldn't warrant tears from most people who will ever watch this film. It was a singular experience.

I did not grow up with means and was raised lower-middle-class poor. I had a loving mother who had to raise four kids through two tumultuous marriages, who only ever encouraged me to be happy and make better decisions with my life. Was I pressured to go to Harvard or Yale? No. But I sensed a kindred spirit in J.R.'s mother, played by Lily Rabe. Her core energy mirrored that of my mother's, which is hard to not connect with. In that same vein, J.R.'s grandfather, played by Christopher Lloyd, very much reminded me of my grandfather, a man who stepped in to provide me with a good male role model in a life filled with poor male role models. The only tattoo on my body is for my grandfather, and seeing that same energy on screen, especially coming from a man like Lloyd, hits different, let me tell ya.

A family making the most of it despite a lack of financial resources, a loving yet troubled mother, and grandparents taking the place of an absent father, certainly reflect my experience growing up. But it was Charlie that hit me the hardest, and Affleck's performance — perhaps a career-best — connected with me on a level I can't quite say I've experienced before. In Uncle Charlie, I saw my beloved Uncle Bob, who is no longer with us. Yet, Uncle Bob is the man who introduced me to just about everything I love in this life, from the music I still cherish above all else to this day, to skateboarding, horror movies, bowling, Marvel Comics, and more nebulously, loving the things you love with unabashed openness. Uncle Bob was one of my very favorite people and, whether he knew it or not, he left an impression on me that has guided the most important decisions in my life.

Uncle Charlie, similarly, steps up to the plate for his nephew J.R., more directly imparting life lessons and knowledge on him. Recognizing he loves to read, Charlie fosters that for his nephew, providing him with a never-ending supply of books, and a safe space to read them. Did my uncle and I bond over literature? Not unless you count "X-Men" comics (and I do). But my uncle provided a safe space for me to love the things I loved, and opened his door to me, as well as my cousins, to enjoy and love those things freely. He was our biggest cheerleader. it was the support that Charlie offered to J.R., and the presence that Affleck brought to it, that allowed me to revisit, in an abstract way, one of the most important relationships in my life. That carries an invaluable weight, and it's something that can happen to anyone, with virtually any movie, at any time. It just happens.

An Imperfect Reflection

There were near-countless moments within the film that made me ponder my own existence and the road I've traveled up to this point in that existence. J.R., played by both Tye Sheridan and Daniel Ranieri, had dreams of becoming a writer, as did I. We entered different fields, but elements of the journey were the same. I went to community college, he went to an Ivy League school. Those experiences are dramatically different.

J.R. also suffered loving a woman who didn't love him back. My life has been a minefield of mishaps in romance so, despite the differences, that connected with me. My father wasn't around at all, and my step-dad provided a very complicated mixed bag of a relationship. J.R.'s father was a DJ who was only occasionally present. Be that as it may, the core relationship there captured my complicated feelings regarding the father figure(s) (or lack thereof) in my own life.

This was not capturing a perfect reflection of oneself like a Polaroid picture one takes with friends on a night out and hangs on their fridge to help them crack a smile from time to time. Rather, this movie was an imperfect reflection of my life, in the way that one might see themselves reflected in a dirty puddle, or on the hood of a car, in just the right existential moment. It's imperfect in its replication, but deeply resonant in its broad scope of capturing a feeling, rather than producing an exact replica. It's the difference between coloring in the lines in a coloring book, or painting something on a blank canvas from memory. The slightly more abstract version allows for more interpretation and connection. In this case, Moehringer's life, interpreted by Clooney, hit me like a ton of bricks in a way I'll cherish for a very, very long time.

"The Tender Bar" hits theaters on December 22 and Amazon Prime Video on January 7, 2022.

The Tender Bar tells the story of J.R. (Tye Sheridan), a fatherless boy growing up in the glow of a bar where the bartender, his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), is the sharpest and most colorful of an assortment of quirky and demonstrative father figures. As the boy's determined mother (Lily Rabe) struggles to provide her son with opportunities denied to her — and leave the dilapidated home of her outrageous if begrudgingly supportive father (Christopher Lloyd) — J.R. begins to gamely, if not always gracefully, pursue his romantic and professional dreams — with one foot persistently placed in Uncle Charlie's bar.