Reviewed at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
“Nowhere Boy” takes a sort of superhero origin story approach to the life of John Lennon (played by Aaron Johnson) — he’s fifteen when it starts and already larger than life, nineteen when it ends and headed off to Hamburg with his latest band. “What are they called again?” his aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) asks. “Do you care?” he responds. “They all sound the same to me,” she tell him. Har har har.
Even with those scattered bits of on-the-nose foreshadowing, the saga of how young Lennon falls in love with music, and then with making music, and then with making music as part of a band worked just fine for me. In the Mia Wallace dichotomy, I absolutely fall on the Beatles side, and I got a kick out of seeing Lennon’s initial attempt at Elvis hair, his first gig, and his posturing when confronted with a diminutive Paul McCartney (played by Thomas Sangster, who was Liam Neeson’s love-struck stepson in “Love Actually”) in the latter’s impromptu try-out when they’re introduced.
Alas, that all takes place in the background of a giant to-do about Lennon’s home life, which develops into triangle between him, Mimi, who’s all starchy, stiff upper lip propriety, and her sister — his mother — Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), who’s all warmth, gaiety and instability. What lad could choose between such persistent female archetypes? Julia gave him over to Mimi’s care when he was five and, according to the film’s source material, a memoir by Lennon’s half-sister, the two didn’t see each other again for years, despite the fact that Julia and her new family lived within walking distance.
Reunited with her son, Julia woos him with affection and introduces him to music, but she’s needy, unfit to take care of him and inappropriately flirty. Mimi is prickly, can’t express her emotions and doesn’t support Lennon’s rock aspirations, but loves him and has always been there for him in other ways. These ties have been churned into melodrama, but “Nowhere Boy” has the frustrating dilemma of ascribing to biopic tics without applying them to its subjects life. Why flatten the messiness of these real relationships in this way if they’re not going to be explicitly tied to some aspect of Lennon the legend? Conversely, if this is supposed to be a less traditional exploration of a famous musician’s early years, and not one that “solves” him, why draw the characters so two-dimensionally?
Director Sam Taylor-Wood is an artist who shot the acclaimed 2008 short “Love You More” before making her feature debut with “Nowhere Boy,” and seems with the latter to have committed herself to making something stalwartly straightforward, never pushing toward any visual or narrative inventiveness. She is, at least, unafraid to show that Lennon can be a real shit to his family and to his friends, prone to fits of anger and cruelty, while also making it clear why they and everyone else adored him anyway. It helps that he’s played by Johnson, who’ll be making a splash soon with “Kick-Ass” and who’s utterly magnetic here despite bearing no particular resemblance to the man he’s channeling. (He’s this Sundance’s Carey Mulligan, who he incidentally starred with in a film from last year’s festival that has yet to reach theaters, “The Greatest.”) Raising low-key Liverpudlian hell with a friend, charming girls on the street, riding on bustops and stealing what turn out to be (accidentally) jazz records from a shop, his joy in himself and his own semi-rebellious youth is irresistible.