Feel-good movies need to have at least one moment, or one character, that genuinely brightens up the experience of watching them, so that we walk away in a good mood no matter what else is going on.
The Tender Bar has three. The first is the Irish priest who the main character, JR (Tye Sheridan), repeatedly bumps into on the train. That sort of religious figure, typically a maudlin—or terrifying—presence in a coming-of-age film like this, wisely refrains from major philosophical pronouncements in this movie, instead offering a well-chosen pithy word or two to keep everything in perspective.
The second feel-good wrinkle is the mini-library on the back bar of the saloon in question, a.k.a. The Dickens Bar. Charles Dickens is there, of course, as are Homer, George Orwell and other hallmarks of that beleaguered institution, the Western Civ Canon. It’s unusual to see a wall of books in a bar, especially when the customers appear to have actually read some of them.
The third item is the appearance of candlepin bowling, an Eastern Seaboard cultural pastime that has no real bearing on the story of how JR navigates his youth, but which adorns the setting decisively. It’s a familiar part of his life.
JR, his Uncle Charlie the reassuringly wise publican (Ben Affleck), Junior’s hard-luck mother (Lily Rabe), old eccentric Grandpa (Christopher Lloyd), the idea that Yale might be the salvation of a working-class young man’s life, the candlepins and even JR’s goofball dad, The Voice (Max Martini), were put on the big screen by director George Clooney—who’s not in the cast—and screenwriter William Monahan, in this adaptation of the memoir by J.R. Moehringer.
Their only purpose, the reason The Tender Bar fits so seamlessly into its hometown American framework, is to show us that even a kid like JR, with no assets other than his mind and one or two people who love him, can have a life worth living. Such an idea might seem clichéd or corny before we sit down to watch the movie, but that criticism never comes up. The Tender Bar will mean more to its target audience than any other film on this year’s holiday calendar.
In Myriam Verreault’s modest yet enthralling Kuessipan, a sensitive, aware teenager named Mikuan Vollant—played by Sharon Ishpatao Fontaine, a member of the Uashat-Maliotenam community of Innu people in Eastern Quebec—has dreams of getting into college. The elusiveness of that aspiration is illustrated by the sticky home life of her best friend, Shannis (Yamie Grégoire), and by the fact that Mikuan’s budding relationship with a young white man named Francis (Ètienne Galloy) causes a local controversy, as if she were selling out her native heritage by hooking up with someone from an enemy tribe.
In all too many cross-cultural romance/coming-of-age pics, whatever denouement develops runs the risk of seeming false. If the character manages to achieve her or his dream the story can turn uncomfortably candy-coated; if the dream ends in tragedy the film tends to reek of forced pity. Canadian director Verreault and writer Naomi Fontaine—adapting her own novel—successfully avoid all those pitfalls with an ultra-naturalistic setting—all the First Nation characters are played by non-actors—and a gorgeous performance by Ms. Fontaine, who has the gift of indicating her character’s opinions and ideas more forcefully with her facial expressions than via line readings.
Quietly, but with great determination, Mikuan charts her course, carefully taking the right steps for her incipient career and yet warmly glorying in the embrace of her family, most of whom are as headstrong as she is. The film’s title, Kuessipan, means “To You” in the Innu dialect. Finally, after she has tended to her traditional community with great care but just a shade of impatience, it’s Mikuan’s turn to spread her wings and explore her potential. We wish her well.