Nowhere Boy ★★★★
(UK, 98 min.)
Dir: Sam Taylor-Wood; Writ: Matt Greenhalgh
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Anne-Marie Duff, Thomas Sangster, Sam Bell.
Nowhere Boy presents a day in the life of John Lennon. Well, it’s far more than a day – more like a few months, really. Regardless of the brief timeframe, the screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh packs a wealth of insight into the pre-Beatles years of John Lennon. Greenhalgh, who scripted the 2007 Joy Division pic Control, displays a masterful hand at capturing the minute details that shaped the history of rock and roll.
In Nowhere Boy, John Lennon is a seventeen-year-old hooligan. Played by Aaron Johnson (Kick-Ass), Lennon is a cocky, trash-talking, and virile boy. John is a defiant nightmare to his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) who has been looking after him since he was five. Despite Mimi’s well-intentioned, but often overly stern attempts to mould John into a respectable young lad, John continually sneaks off to visit his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). Julia is the complete opposite of her sister: unlike Mimi, she is a colour-wearing, rock-loving liberal. Her waify nature is the perfect escape for John. Moreover, her bohemian attitude creates the perfect environment for nurturing John’s unregulated angst.
It is with Julia that John learns the basics of music. Since John’s always gets himself suspended from school, he has plenty of time to sate his musical urges. Once he gets a handle on things, he forms a rock band, The Quarrymen, with some of his chums from school and, eventually, a younger musician named Paul (Thomas Sangster).
As Nowhere Boy progresses though the genesis of the Beatles, director Sam Taylor-Wood does a fantastic job of capturing the energy of rock and roll, as well as the overall vibe of the people who were desperate for something new. Taylor-Wood’s greatly aided by her discovery in Aaron Johnson, who perfectly inhabits Lennon’s roguish ambition. Even when he’s not onstage, Johnson shows how Lennon was always a performer.
Nowhere Boy really comes alive though, through the toxic relationship of Mimi and Julia. As John’s two mothers, Scott Thomas and Duff guarantee that viewers will feel just as conflicted as John does. Both Mimi and Julia display a genuine affection for John, but in different ways: Mimi seems concerned for his well-being, while Julia needs John to make her feel special. Both actresses make their characters equally sympathetic and disagreeable in that regard. At times, Mimi seems overly frigid in her control of John, and while Scott Thomas often invokes Mimi’s patience as a defense mechanism, she frequently allows cracks of genuine emotion to slip across her face. Likewise, Duff invests an aimlessness to Julia that makes her both endearing and pathetic: One can see why John yearns to favour his birth mother, but it’s alarming how frequently Julia manipulates him to satisfy her emotional disarray. The mounting tensions between the two sisters and John explode in the final act, and when Mimi and Julia finally confront one another to declare who can best serve John’s needs, Scott Thomas and Duff provide a riveting and emotionally fraught collision of sibling rivalry. It’s one of the most laudable acting scenes this year.
Through it all, though, John perseveres. Nowhere Boy consistently reveals how music afforded Lennon a positive outlook when he lacked one elsewhere. The film culminates with John forming a new band and with them shipping off to Hamburg to try their hand at a new music scene. The film thus enlivens Lennon’s biography through subtle hints at his rise to fame, which any fan is sure to relish. Nowhere Boy is a formidable tribute to the legacy of rock and roll.