I saw this film in the best possible way: I didn’t know what it was about before I attended an early screening. I found it to be a moving look at a teenage boy’s struggles with his splintered family in England during the 1960s. When I realized the protagonist was John Lennon, it made even more sense, as I remembered, in sketchy form, the story of his adolescence.
One could easily call this Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for that’s what it offers us: a look at Lennon’s youthful ways, including his first forays into music, his cultural influences and ambitions, and most of all his relationship with his loving uncle and stern aunt, who raised him, and his absentee mother, who re-entered his life at a crucial moment in his young life.
Aaron Johnson, who played the American hero in Kick-Ass, does a fine job here as—
—the teenage Lennon, with all his emotional baggage and contradictions. This isn’t one of those sappy Hollywood biographies where important invents are foreshadowed, in heavy-handed terms, but we do get glimpses of the Lennon we all came to know, in his formative years.
Johnson shines most of all in his scenes with the two dominant women in his life, and each one is played by a magnificent actress: Kristin Scott-Thomas is his straitlaced aunt, who always tries to keep her emotions in check. Anne-Marie Duff, better known for her award-winning stage work in London than she is on these shores, does a superlative job as Lennon’s mother, who essentially abandoned him at the age of five but suddenly wants to be part of his life.
Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay (officially based on a book by Lennon’s sister Julia Baird) encompasses the emotional touchstones of the young man’s life as well as his earliest experiences as a musician, including his first meeting with Paul (last name never spoken) and their earliest gigs. Director Sam Taylor-Wood captures an honesty and immediacy in all of these scenes.
Nowhere Boy is moving because its emotions are genuine, and its performances so good. It has additional poignancy because of what we bring to the film, knowing about Lennon’s later life. I don’t think I’ll ever hear The Beatles’ ballad “Julia” again without thinking about his mother.