Movie Review: “Nowhere Boy”

“You’re going nowhere,” his school headmaster tells him.

“Is nowhere full of geniuses, sir?” the young John Lennon snaps back. “Because if it is, I do belong there.”

The quick wit, sarcasm and self-confidence are evident in the young Lennon, played here with rebellious verve by Aaron Johnson of “Kick-Ass.” But “Nowhere Boy,” the movie, doesn’t really make the case for Lennon’s sense of self.  The Lennon here wasn’t a genius — a boy with competitive drive and a fierce desire for the sort of fame that impresses the girls, a boy with a troubled upbringing, but with parents who encouraged and indulged his musical interests.

The script, by Matt Greenhalgh and based on Lennon’s half-sister Julia Baird’s memoir, details the tragedies John faced and the two women and one man who raised him. If there’s a message to “Nowhere Boy,” which opens Friday at the Enzian, it’s that it takes two mothers to raise a rock’n roll icon.

Mimi, played to starched perfection by Kristen Scott Thomas, is the responsible aunt who kept him fed and clothed, punished him when he didn’t crack down in school and who bought him his first guitars. But her sister Julia (Anne-Marie Duff, luminous) was his real mother, a woman Mimi kept away from John. And when you meet the mercurial, almost manic Julia, a flirt who never quite aged out of her loose woman youth, you understand why.

But once John re-connected with her, Julia is the one who encouraged the music.  Julia was hip enough to know rock’n roll and encourage John to take it up, but flighty enough to neglect the little daughters she’s raising to run off to any place with a jukebox with John.

Mimi is so emotionally distant she doesn’t even mourn when her husband, John’s beloved uncle, dies.

“It’s just the two of us,” she says, brushing off his hug and tears. “So let’s get on with it, shall we?”

Director Sam Taylor-Wood hits the high notes from this period in Lennon’s pre-Beatles life, his discovery of Evlis and especially the way girls reacted to Elvis, his decision to start a band. The filmmaker even duplicates a couple of famous photos of Lennon with his first band, The Quarrymen, and in art school.

But that just-the-highs-and-lows approach leaves much of the life out of the piece. John’s pranks and his pals are here, the day he met Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster, sharp, even though lacks McCartney’s quizzical eyebrows) and began an instant rivalry with him, the day George Harrison auditioned. But we get little sense of his interior life, what was going on in his head as school, girlfriends and music were competing for his attention and music was winning out. His drive is suggested, but never really felt in the performance.

But if you’ve seen read or seen the Beatles history in literature or film, you’ll adore  “Nowhere Boy”‘ for filling in more blank spaces about the early life that formed one of the seminal figures in rock history. For a guy destined to go nowhere, he went about as far as anybody ever did.

Cast: Aaron Johnson, Kristen Scott-Thomas, Anne-Marie Duff

Director: Sam Taylor-Wood

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes

Rating: R for language and a scene of sexuality.

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