"Nowhere Boy" - Isn't He a Bit Like You and Me?
(UK, 2009, 98 mins)
John Lennon was always a great interview. From his cheeky Beatles press conferences, to his multiple appearances on "The Dick Cavett Show," to his fateful final interview with Playboy, Lennon simultaneously played dark, intellectual, and silly.
If this truly was his character, or the willing part he played, is up for debate - perhaps most of all by John himself. On the largest scales ever imagined, Lennon was always trying to work out exactly who he was.
Sam Taylor-Wood’s "Nowhere Boy" takes a decidedly commercial look at a few years of John Lennon’s (played by newcomer Aaron Johnson) life, showing the future legend at the height of his teenage years. He lived with his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) in Liverpool along with a favorite uncle who dies early on in the film from a heart attack.
The death clearly pained the young boy, who found no solace from Mimi, herself a proud owner of that British stiff upper lip. John didn’t care much for school, preferring to hop aboard the roof of a double-decker, steal records, and sneak off to the park with a lassie for a little, um, fish-and-finger pie.
The drama turns when Lennon mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), reenters his life. She’s the free spirited yin to Mimi’s strict yang, and introduces her son to music. Thank Dylan for her, or else the world might have gotten another Liverpudlian dockside wanker, instead of history’s 31st greatest artist. Julia’s a flighty woman, likely a manic-depressive, who was never really able to take care of her son—it’s the kind of stuff that all got screamed out with Yoko in the 70s, not to mention over the final credits.
Beatles fans can rejoice as Lennon begins to enter the music world; the early stages of the band, then known as The Quarrymen, get some decent screen time. They play a single gig, after which a innocent lad named Paul (Thomas Sangster) walks in, asks for a cup of tea and impresses the mates with his guitar skills.
Lennon himself was never a fan of those Beatles caricatures created by “A Hard Day’s Night” and the casting of Sangster is a hilariously one-note choice. Paul’s the cute one, right? Eh, gimme that cute kid from “Love Actually!”
Johnson never really excels in the part, though it’s not for lack of trying. The anger, frustration, and loopiness of John Lennon are all there in theory, but it doesn’t look comfortable. He wears the hurt on his face (one too attractive for the part), but it never goes down to his rubber soul.
The best performance comes from Scott Thomas’s Mimi whose relationship with her nephew is wonderfully complex. Despite their constant fighting and seemingly incompatible worldviews, the two spoke every week for the entirety of John’s life.
As for Julia—any Beatle’s fan worth his weight in savoy truffles knows at least one element about her story, but I won’t spoil it. There aren’t many revelations about their relationship here, and the climax about the truth of John’s upbringing is overlong and melodramatic.
Still, there are occasional glimpses into John’s world that make the darkest Beatle a little easier to understand. And the other parts? As John once wrote, “I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine.”
Reach reporter Tom Dotan here.