Before The Beatles came together, John Lennon was just another troubled adolescent. “Nowhere Boy” gives us a look at his life in the tempestuous couple of years before he became a full-time rock star.
Those expecting a documentary-style or otherwise faithful biopic will likely be disappointed. Sam Taylor-Wood, in her feature directing debut, has gone more for emotional accuracy than visual recreation. If, however, you can get past the looks of the actors not being spot-on, their performances will win you over.
This isn’t a film which lends itself to summary. “Nowhere Boy” gives us Lennon’s life as he struggles to balance living with his strict, demanding aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), who raised him, with his newly-rekindled relationship with his estranged, wild mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). Add to this troubles behaving at school and a passion for rock and roll, and you have the makings of a juvenile delinquent. Fortunately, his mother teaches him banjo and he’s able to redirect his emotions into playing music rather than into looking for trouble.
As John, Aaron Johnson is phenomenal — and likely almost unrecognizable to American filmgoers who primarily know him from “Kick-Ass.” He makes the troubled teenager both sympathetic and believable while still showing his flaws. His John is engaging, intriguing, and prone to lashing out. Understanding where his anger comes from doesn’t make it any less disquieting.
The script, which assumes the audience is intelligent and alert, comes together with excellent acting and direction to give us a cast of mostly very-repressed people whose emotions show in their faces and run just under the surface of their words. Thomas and Duff’s performances as the pair of sisters who both love John but don’t really know how to handle him are complex and fascinating. They’re like opposite ends of a magnet, with John not sure which he’s most drawn to. Mimi can be very hard on him, but has his best interests at heart, while Julia indulges and adores him, but also confuses and upsets him. Their acting takes what could have been stereotypical performances and endows them with depth and pathos.
The members secondary cast of characters, which by the end of the film includes future Beatles Paul and George, are by necessity more simply drawn, but there’s a surprising complexity to some of them. Paul (Thomas Brodie Sangster) in particular grows from being a fellow musician for John to one of the few people who can understand what he’s going through by the end of the film. The performances are all simply but very carefully constructed, reminiscent of sketches that use only a few lines to draw a very clear picture. A few perfectly-placed strokes can give a far more concrete image than many sloppy ones.
Of course, any film about a famous musician will have loads of music in it, and “Nowhere Boy” is no exception. Impressively, Johnson does his own singing and playing, and does a spectacular job of both. The music played in the background and the music played by the characters are both well-chosen and well-performed.
“Nowhere Boy” won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but for those who enjoy character-driven films, it’s a must-see.