Title: Nowhere Boy
Directed By: Sam Taylor-Wood
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Anne-Marie Duff, Thomas Sangster, Sam Bell, David Morrisey, Ophelia Lovibond
After The Runaways, the thought of another teen-centric music movie was wildly exciting. However, Nowhere Boy isn’t really about the making of The Beatles as The Runaways depicts the assembly of that band. In fact, for the majority of the film, music takes a backseat to family issues. Nowhere Boy may be devoid of the music video element that made The Runaways such a blast, but the drama that’s put in its place is just as effective.
Back when John was a little boy, an incident forced his mother, Julia, to give him away and so he fell under the care of his aunt Mimi and uncle George (Kristin Scott Thomas and David Threlfall). The film opens with a teenage Lennon played by Aaron Johnson living happily in Liverpool in 1955. When his uncle passes away, John runs straight into the arms of his mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), which is where his flare for music really ignites. Julia is ecstatic to have her little boy home, welcomes him with open arms, plays him Elvis records and teaches him to strum a banjo.
It’s all fun and games until the reality of the situation comes into play. Julia’s husband isn’t thrilled to have John around the house fearing it’ll distract her from their two little girls while John’s aunt grows concerned for his sake as well as simply missing him. There’s a reason John and his mother were separated and the closer he gets to her, the closer he gets to having to acknowledge his troublesome past. As these tumultuous relationships collide, John still manages to assemble his first band, The Quarrymen, which ultimately grows to include both Paul McCartney and George Harrison (Thomas Sangster and Sam Bell) before setting off for a tour in Hamburg.
Nowhere Boy is not a Beatles movie. In fact, it’s not really a music movie either; it’s more of a combination of a coming-of-age story and a family drama and the mixture works perfectly. At the onset of the film, John is simply a kid who loves his family, goes to school and is a little disobedient, but by the end he’s a man, a man who’s struggled through love and loss all while seizing the opportunity to pursue his passion.
The story is enlightening in and of itself, but it’s Johnson who makes it particularly powerful. The Kick-Ass star is barely recognizable not only because of the drastic change in wardrobe, but because of his performance as well. His persona is entirely different through and through. Kick-Ass or Aaron Johnson for that matter, is nowhere to be found; he is Lennon. However, there are moments when Johnson takes things a tad too far, crossing the line into overacting territory, primarily when arguing with his many guardians. Duff suffers in a similar manner, losing composure herself when her character melts down, while Scott Thomas sails through the entire film with ease, never pushing Mimi too far whether it be in the midst of fits of rage or moments during which she shows off her motherly instincts.
Also deserving of credit is the handful of secondary characters, particularly John’s friends. Typically when it comes down to the less prominent players, we end up with quite a few who merely deliver their lines, sans emotion, especially when it comes to younger actors. However that’s far from the case here. Everyone from James Johnson to Bell does a standout job with only a minimal amount of dialogue. Still, the best of that bunch is clearly Sangster who doesn’t look the part whatsoever, but manages to pull off his role on performing abilities alone.
Nowhere Boy is undeniably entertaining from beginning to end. Sam Taylor-Wood keeps an excellent pace and uses proper editing and a fantastic soundtrack to keep the entire piece upbeat and downright fun. From the opening sequence set to Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Wild One” to a moment shared between John and Julia enjoying Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You,” it’s nearly impossible to keep from tapping your foot with a massive grin on your face. What makes the upbeat musical accompaniment even more powerful is that when the tunes fade out to make room for the film’s more dramatic moments, it makes those heart-wrenching portions hit twice as hard.
At just 98 minutes, Nowhere Boy’s only major shortcoming is that there’s just not enough time to thoroughly depict the events of Lennon’s teenage years. It’s easy to see that Mimi is a very rigid woman who insists John is always on his best behavior, but beyond her relationship with her nephew, we really know nothing about her, even when it comes to whether or not she’s still grieving over the loss of her husband. Also, despite the good performances, John’s early relationship with Paul is rather thin.
If anything, this criticism speaks to the film’s quality. Based on the excellence of the 98 minutes, an extra 15 or even 30 would have not only been just as enjoyable, but satisfied the desire for more as well. Regardless, Nowhere Boy is still a wildly entertaining and refreshing look at the less familiar years of John Lennon’s life.
By Perri Nemiroff