Lennon comes of age in this teen-era biography of the young Beatle
The film’s nowhere manchild is John Lennon in his late teens, but Sam Taylor-Wood’s plaintive little movie is neither a full-on biopic nor a birth-of-The-Beatles epic. Instead it’s more a pungent and moody domestic drama with the travails of the two mother figures in Lennon’s life spliced into a young rocker’s rite-of-passage tale.
The pre-Beatles Lennon (played by hunky Aaron Johnson) is the pivotal figure in that drama, an anguished character in sketchy transition. But the glowingly indelible characters in this story are Lennon’s strait-laced Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), who raised him, and his mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), with whom he is briefly and tumultuously reunited at this stage of his life.
Duff’s Julia, with her rapturously uninhibited equation of sex and rock ’n’ roll, is a dazzling figure of inspiration and reckless daring, while Thomas’ Mimi, at first only a tightly wound bastion of staunch middle-class propriety, gradually emerges as an equally crucial influence on the youthful Lennon. Thomas’ subtle evocation of emotional intelligence and passionate commitment beneath Mimi’s stoical mask proves crucial to the sudden maturity the young man begins to exhibit late in the action.
Johnson, Thomas Brodie Sangster (as Paul McCartney), and Sam Bell (George Harrison) bear no particularly strong resemblance to the Beatles we know. But Johnson does manage to give much the same look that we get from pre-Beatles photos of Lennon, and Sangster’s Paul has a nice touch of poetic truth to it.
Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay, based partly on a memoir by Lennon’s half-sister Julie Baird, stays with the basic historical record. But Taylor-Wood, making her feature-film debut, puts a mild twist of stylistic hype into nearly everything else. In the end, even with its marginal delights of Beatlemania, Nowhere Boy plays rather like a common-law marriage between Hollywood’s teen rebel movies of the mid-1950s and Britain’s “kitchen sink” social dramas of much the same period.