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5 Screenwriting Takeaways: How ‘The Tender Bar’ creates a boy’s coming-of-age story around a local bar

January 14, 2022
5 min read time

It’s no surprise that The Tender Bar — the story of the book's author, J.R. Moehringer  actually became a published memoir because according to that memoir, there were plenty of people in his life who told him he should do it.

The Tender Bar follows the life of young JR growing up in a lower-class home with his single mother, who dreams for him to go to Yale.

The film starts off with JR and his mother moving into his grandfather’s home. During his coming-of-age story, JR constantly lives in the hope of a relationship with his absent father, a radio DJ known in the film as “The Voice,” while picking up valuable lessons about life from his Uncle Charlie, who owns the local bar.

Written by William Monahan and directed by George Clooney, The Tender Bar stars Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, Lily Rabe, and Christopher Lloyd. The film is based on a memoir of the same name, which Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, released in 2005. The memoir chronicles his early life experiences at his uncle’s bar.

Here are five screenwriting takeaways from The Tender Bar:

1. Using narration

There is no shortage of thoughts on the use of narration. Some lambaste its use; others see it as a useful device. As long as it’s used to drive the story and not to fill in the missing holes found within the stories, there’s no reason to shy away from it.

In The Tender Bar, narration is used, although sparingly. It’s mostly used to catch the viewer up on time that has elapsed. Its most prominent use is in the beginning of the film when the narrator (Ron Livingston), an older version of JR, sets up the story and shares his thoughts on the current situation.

Writers can see how narration can be a useful tool without being overdone, and how it can bridge a story focusing on two main time frames of the lead’s life (in this case, being a child and being a young adult going to college and starting a career).

2. Telling a family story

If you’re a writer and you’re reading this, I bet you’ve heard this at least once in your life: “My family could be a movie. They are really crazy and quirky.” Most families have an odd dynamic and truthfully, we all know that (much) more often than not, there isn’t much of a story there to begin with.

There’s one thing that writers can learn from a film like The Tender Bar, which has its fair share of quirky family members: the characters don’t matter unless it helps the story. Characters like JR's mom (Rabe), grandfather (Lloyd), and his Uncle Charlie (Affleck)  who tends to steal most scenes he’s in — are there in supporting roles to the main character of both young JR (Daniel Ranieri) and JR (Sheridan).

Each of these characters share a purpose in his life, whether it’s Grandpa attending a father-son breakfast at JR’s school, or Uncle Charlie doling out some piece of advice. As unusual as some of the characters might be, they wouldn’t be there without JR and so it’s not enough to have an interesting family; there must be someone to follow who has a story that shows how that family helped or hurt the character through the journey.

3. The father figures

There are two main father figures in JR’s life.

The first one is Uncle Charlie, who takes on the role of father figure to JR from the moment JR and his mom arrive at Grandpa’s house. From the very start, he’s sharing his wisdom of the world as if JR was another one of his barflies looking for a piece of advice along with their pint. One nugget of wisdom in particular sets the course for JR’s life: Uncle Charlie shares the harsh truth that JR is not good at sports and shouldn’t rely on that to get him through life (the first scene shows Uncle Charlie practicing softball with some guys so he can be considered a reliable source). This sets JR on the path to becoming a writer.

The other father figure is JR’s dad, who plays a distant role in the child’s life. As previously mentioned, the film only refers to him as “The Voice.” It’s a perfect contrast of support systems as when The Voice shares his knowledge (albeit sporadically), it seems like someone who pessimistically expels poor advice.

Writers can see how The Tender Bar takes two different people, both critical in the main character’s life, and explores their impact on how the story moves forward.

4. Find a constant

“Be good to your mom,” is a constant line heard throughout the movie. There is no doubt that JR’s mom loves her son and wants him to succeed. There is no reason to think JR doesn’t love his mom. Yet this line is repeated as if JR needed a constant reminder of his mother’s sacrifice to ensure he had a good life.

Another constant is JR’s name itself. People constantly ask what it means, and thus it brings up a pain point in his life. JR even makes the decision to remove the periods from the name, hence removing “junior,” as a way to distance himself from his father (in case you were wondering why the periods were missing throughout this blog post).

Writers can see how creating a constant can turn the focus on specific story elements and show how characters react throughout the film. A teacher in grade school asking about JR’s father garners a far different reaction than when he’s asked in college.

5. The paradox of the adaptation

As noted, The Tender Bar is based off of a memoir of the same name. That book is more than 500 pages. Writers who have to adapt an original work will have to leave some of the story out and may even need to expand on parts of the story that are not in the book.

In Monahan’s discussion with Final Draft, the screenwriter outlines the challenges adapting a robust memoir brings, saying, “With this adaptation we were going from 500 pages to a 115-page script. I’m not gonna fit it all in, but I have to get the essence. I hope I succeeded as it’s a very popular book, and a favorite book of a lot of people, which I learned after I took the job. ... When I learned that, I thought, ‘Oh, no. I hope I don’t screw this up.’”

When it’s impossible to remain faithful to a large book due to time and story constraints, it’s likely that some in the audience won’t like the adaptation. Fortunately, that’s okay. Screenwriters have to make the story their own because the job is to fit the throughline of the original work into the blueprint (script) that will create the film.

The Tender Bar is now streaming on Prime Video.

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