REVIEW: Nowhere Boy Captures Some Elusive Truths About the Young John Lennon
A scene from the trenches: Two exhibitors are talking shop at grating volume in the screening room where a showing of Nowhere Boy is running 15 dastardly minutes late. One of them wonders why more of their peers aren't in attendance. "This is an art screening, without stars," the other scoffs. "Are you kidding me? Not that Christine Scott Thomas isn't a star -- but she's an art star."
This was all news to me, which is not to say it isn't necessarily true (pace Kristin Scott Thomas). I just hadn't thought of the film in those terms: As a John Lennon disciple, I had been looking forward to Sam Taylor-Wood's depiction of a formative slice of the singer/songwriter/godhead's adolescence; it draws from a gospel I know by heart. While praying for the lights to dim I re-imagined the film in broad, mercenary strokes: Would its appeal thus be limited to only those who like Lennon and art films? "How long is this opus?" exhibitor two barked, as if in response.
A better answer might be offered by the example of Control, Anton Corbijn's breakthrough film about Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. Although Nowhere Boy is arguably more conventional, it is not without certain risks, curiosities, and interpretive fillips of its own. What the two films share most overtly is their screenwriter, Matt Greenhalgh, and his knack for crafting character and story where poses and marks might having sufficed. Here especially he ekes out a new and necessary wing in the public imagination for a figure who seems to already have more than his share of room.
In a resemblance-is-futile move, Taylor-Wood cast Aaron Johnson (last seen in Kick-Ass) as the teenaged Lennon, and while he doesn't reach the levels of verisimilitude Ian Hart (who played young Lennon in Backbeat in 1994) did, Johnson ultimately captures much of the heart, wit, and ruthless animal intelligence that would go on to form the legend of Lennon's persona. The seamlessness of both the character and his mythic transformation is a large part of what holds this immersive and tenderly observed but slightly unstable portrait together.
After the sudden death of his wry, kind-hearted uncle (David Threlfall), it is just John and his starchy Aunt Mimi (Thomas) at Mendips, their modest home in Liverpool. One of several awkwardly handled events in the film is the introduction of John's apparently sudden interest in his mother, and where she might be. His best friend Pete (Josh Bolt) digs around for intel and winds up taking him to his mother's door, which as it turns out is just around the corner. The now musically enshrined Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) is portrayed as flighty, half mad, and exactly what John needs.
Living in sin with the father of her two young girls (David Morrissey), Julia is flirty and demonstrative to a fault, covering her long-lost son (who has been in Mimi's care since the age of five, although it not immediately revealed why) with kisses and promises of a new life together. She wears a series of halter-necked sock-hop dresses, loves Elvis, and indulges her children with manic pixie dream mom antics. To the audience her instability is clear; to John she's simply overwhelming, and he begins holing up at her house without Mimi's permission. There he learns the banjo, listens to rock and roll, and gets sex, Elvis, and his mother spectacularly confused.
Music provides a portal for a new identity, something certain to stand against the unstable sprawl of his family. A natural leader, Lennon puts a skiffle band together in punk-rock style, and soon The Quarrymen are playing at a local fair, to his mother's delight and Mimi's muted pride. As the performing Lennon takes over Johnson locks into the role, harnessing the character's complicated, deflective charisma to his newfound drive. The scene in which he meets the duckling Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster) is a joy to watch: During an impromptu audition the circumspect musician pricks the hothead showman's ironical swagger, admiration, and jealousy simply by being himself. (McCartney and others chipped in with details and memories as the script was written.)
Thomas and Duff stake their territory like old pros; both give exceptional performances, though I preferred Thomas's quiet, industrious work in a tricky and often genuinely surprising part to the predictably earthy, ethereal pirouettes of Duff's Julia. Their climactic, wallpaper-clawing, secret-blasting scene is a low point in a film that elsewhere maintains a balance between biographical bullet points and an aesthetic that feels guided by some higher truth.
Although this is a film about the influential women in Lennon's life, it succeeds equally in its evocation of the family Lennon built among his boyhood mates; Bolt is especially wonderful as the soft-hearted, smart-mouthed best friend who's always at hand and occasionally underfoot. Effectively but sparsely drawn throughout, that bond is set into powerful relief by a late scene of the wake that follows Julia's sudden, tragic death. John lashes out in anguish at his mates, who are huddled innocuously -- uselessly -- in a corner of the sitting room. The outburst is stunning, even savage, but also painfully intimate, and John's friends suffer the derangement of his grief with miserable confusion. They have seen something none of them know how to handle, and they have seen it too young: There is perhaps no greater bond.