In the late '50s John Lennon (Aaron Johnson, "Kick-Ass") was not yet "the" John Lennon. But according to the new film from Sam Taylor-Wood, he already was in his own mind. A teenager with little interest in school, John was raised by his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Uncle George (David Threlfall). With George's death, John is left solely in Mimi's hands but he also wishes to finally get to know his real mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). While Julia is married with two daughters and lives close by, she has been estranged from John for most of his life and he doesn't understand why.
John and Julia finally do connect but it's quite clear that Julia has some mental troubles that make some of her interactions with John a bit creepy and inappropriate. Still, she passes her love of modern music on to John and even gives him his first guitar lessons while he's suspended from school. The film isn't so much about John becoming Lennon as it is about him coming to adulthood and the two women who have their own ideas about who he is and who he should aspire to be. This is what makes the movie interesting and keeps it from feeling like yet another music biopic in the "Ray"/"Walk the Line"/"Control" vein.
That said, "Nowhere Boy" does fall in to some of those trappings. Of course Mimi has to shout, "Don't lie to me, John Lennon!" to remind us just who she's scalding. And there have to be multiple visual references to walruses just to drive home that he already had some of his Beatles ideas very early on. Taylor-Wood does have a few of these typical biopic missteps but thankfully the movie isn't overwhelmed with them. John's first meeting with a 15 year old Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster, the awesome kid from "Love Actually") feels like a natural meeting scene rather than somebody nudging our ribs saying, "OH! It's when John met Paul." I also liked that neither Johnson nor Sangster play the personas or fall into doing imitations. They're just characters in this movie which goes further in separating "Nowhere Boy" from other movies about famous musicians.
Johnson's performance drives the film and he makes us forget all about his role as Kick-Ass. Here he's just John and from moment to moment we find ourselves debating about whether we like him or not. Johnson plays very well off of Thomas and Duff. John's difficulty in determining who truly has his best interest at heart, his aunt or his mother, is explored fully and neither is painted as being 100 percent right or wrong. A lot of movies would pick a side for us early on but this one doesn't and is all the more interesting for it.
I liked a lot about "Nowhere Boy" but it all adds up to a movie that's pretty good, not great. There's something missing that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Whatever it is it keeps "Nowhere Boy" from being the movie that it could have been. Worth checking out but you don't need to put it at the top of your list.
"Nowhere Boy" is currently in limited release. In the Seattle area it is playing at Thornton Place and the Alderwood Mall. It's sharing a screen with another movie at both theaters so base your moviegoing on convenience of time rather than location. 7/10.