“Why couldn’t God have made me Elvis?” laments the teenage John Lennon (Aaron Johnson) in the surprisingly engrossing Nowhere Boy. The setting is 1955 Liverpool, England is going nuts for the latest American import … rock ‘n’ roll, singularly embodied by Presley – and Lennon, who doesn’t so much as play the drums, covets the delirious effect the music has on those who listen to it.
Restless, rebellious, prone to getting into trouble at school and often clashing with his strict, emotionally chilly Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), Lennon seems to be drifting (“At this moment, you’re going nowhere,” his principal admonishes) until two things happen: His natural birth mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), re-enters his life, and his curiosity about music becomes a full-blown obsession.
Nowhere Boy, which was written by Matt Greengalgh (Control) and directed by first-timer Sam Taylor-Wood, uses a variety of books, news sources and first-hand accounts (including the memoirs of Lennon’s half-sister) to fill in the details of a little-known period in the singer’s life: His formative adolescence, during which he became the subject of an emotional tug-of-war between his aunt and his mother.
After spotting his mom at his uncle’s funeral, Lennon discovers she lives only a few blocks away from his aunt’s home and shows up at her doorstep, wanting to get to know her better. By then, Julia has remarried and has three other young children, but John is obviously special to her. The boy brings out a vivaciousness in her that is the mirror-opposite of Aunt Mimi’s near-Victorian rigidity. When she takes him out to a diner and starts grooving to the music blasting from the jukebox, John studies her with fascinated, curious eyes. “Do you know what it means, rock ‘n’ roll?” she asks him. “Sex.”
There’s a slight hint of incest in Julia’s love for her long-lost son (the movie intercuts another sequence of the pair dancing around at home with John having sex with a schoolgirl), but that curious implication goes nowhere. Instead, Julia teaches the boy how to play the banjo – a seminal moment in his life – and radiates so much energy and excitement that John can’t get enough of her. When his aunt finds out where he’s been spending his time, she orders him to come home immediately, but he defies her and stays with his Mum for a few days. With her, he suddenly starts to feel more complete.
Eventually, though – inevitably – the question of why she abandoned him in the first place must be addressed. As the story of a young man struggling to find his own identity, Nowhere Boy would work even if its protagonist hadn’t grown up to change the world. Although the Beatles are never mentioned by name, their presence haunts the movie, from the unmistakable opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night heard at the start of the film to the name of the park on the street where John lives (Strawberry Field).
Duff, who does a marvelous job of conveying Julia’s regret and newfound excitement, and Thomas, who gives a sharp edge to Mimi’s understandable anger and resentment, are terrific as the two estranged sisters. Johnson (Kick-Ass) doesn’t try to mimic Lennon’s gestures and voice directly, but he nails the imperious ego, the reckless nonchalance and the creative impulsiveness of the singer. When he starts a band, The Quarrymen, and makes the acquaintance of another guitar-playing chap named Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster), a slight tingle runs down your spine.
Nowhere Boy is great at depicting the birth of Lennon’s love for his art (when his aunt buys him his first guitar, he takes it home, props it up on his bed and just sits and stares at it lovingly). The film contains some terrific musical performances and does a nice job recreating the life-changing effect rock had on 1950s youth culture. But the picture’s chief strength is its depiction of the lasting psychological scars our parents can unwittingly inflict upon us, even when they’re acting on the best intentions. After seeing Nowhere Boy, the lyrics to Lennon’s Mother (“Mother, you had me but I never had you / I wanted you but you didn’t want me”) feel more poignant than ever.
Cast: Aaron Johnson, Anne-Marie Duff, Kristin Scott Thomas, David Morrissey, Thomas Brodie Sangster, Sam Bell.
Director: Sam Taylor-Wood.
Screenwriter: Matt Greengalgh.
Producers: Douglas Rae, Robert Bernstein, Kevin Loader.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 98 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, drug use, adult themes. Opens Friday Oct. 15 in Miami-Dade at South Beach and in Broward at Gateway and Sunrise.