In lyrical early-Beatles parlance, “We like it, yeah, yeah, yeah!”
Nowhere Boy, that is, a slightly fictionalized biographical drama about John Lennon’s pre-Beatles youth.
In 1955, fifteen-year-old John Lennon, portrayed by Aaron Johnson, lives in Liverpool with his stern but devoted Aunt Mimi, played by Kristin Scott-Thomas, by whom he has been raised for most of his life.
Between his near-delinquency and his curiosity about why he has not been brought up by either of his birth parents, John has the makings of a severely preoccupying identity crisis.
When he learns to his shock that his volatile mother, Julia, played by Anne-Marie Duff, actually lives right around the corner with her common-law husband and her other children, he drops in on her and they reconnect. Over the next few months, Julia teaches John to play the banjo and introduces him to the music of Elvis Presley.
But she tells John to keep all this a secret from Mimi, whom she claims would disapprove, although John is not exactly sure why.
Locked in an Oedipal triangle, John wants to bring the estranged sisters together. And he wants to find out definitively why Julia abandoned him at age five and why he was then raised by Mimi. Maybe then the fragments of dreams and fleeting childhood memories that continue to haunt him will start to make sense and add up to something.
Director Sam Taylor-Wood, a noted British photographer and conceptual artist, makes her feature film debut by working from a screenplay by Matt Greenhaigh that’s based on a memoir by Lennon’s half-sister, Julia Baird, called Imagine This: Growing Up with My Brother, John Lennon.
But even though we get the occasional glimpse into a future Lennon-McCartney song, the director uses very little of the expected Beatles hits because, well, they came later.
Yes, Taylor-Wood does introduce us to Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster) and George Harrison (Sam Bell), so we do see a wee bit, in the very early stages, of the formation of the Beatles. But this portrait of a future icon is also a tale of two sisters and two mothers — two women in all. The film’s primary focus is on Lennon’s relationships with the two women who loomed largest in his life, whose conflict and whose personalities most affected and shaped him.
Perhaps the first-time director’s most admirable achievement is to get three stellar performances out of her principal cast.
Johnson, who also starred as the title character in Kick-Ass (and is engaged to Ms. Taylor-Wood), corrals the essence of the emotionally turbulent Lennon — his wit, his anguish, his anger, his swagger, and his talent — without resorting to slavish impersonation, nightclub impression, or out-and-out caricature. It’s impressive work.
And Duff captures vividly the emotional tug-of-war that challenged manic-depressive Julia, in an era before bipolar disorder was understood or labeled as such.
But it’s Scott-Thomas whose portrayal makes the most lasting impression, showing us Mimi’s determination and stubbornness and need and pain, but also her unshakable love for the boy she raised.
Whatever limitations the screenplay has or liberties it takes, the trio of arresting performances render moot.
So we’ll give a long and winding 3 stars out of 4 for this skillfully crafted and poignant coming-of-age biopic.
John Lennon might have been heading nowhere, but he changed direction and ended up everywhere. Showing us how, Nowhere Boy gets somewhere worth getting to.