Just a few weeks after what would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday comes “Nowhere Boy,” the critically acclaimed piece detailing the youth and adolescence of the legendary Beatle. Marking the directing debut of artist Sam Taylor-Wood, the film is set in Liverpool, England in the year 1955 and follows the experiences of a coming-of-age Lennon (Aaron Johnson) whose encounters as a “Nowhere Boy” will lead to the writing of John’s hit song “Nowhere Man” a decade later.
The film of course is not unaware of this explicit link. When Lennon’s headmaster acknowledges during the opening credits that he is going “nowhere,” John rather amusingly responds, “Is nowhere full of geniuses, sir? Because then I probably do belong there.”
But through the lyrics of the 1965 single, we’re told that Nowhere Man “doesn’t have a point of view, knows not where he’s going to, isn’t he a bit like you and me?” This is true of “Nowhere Boy” also. Taylor-Wood’s main aim seems to be subtlety. She clearly wishes to depict the normalcy of Lennon’s early life. Perhaps even without the daunting concept of The Beatles’ success, the story would be touching enough if John Lennon was replaced with John Doe.
The Beatles are indeed very much the elephant in the room, their name not being mentioned once in the film. In many ways this only adds to the poignancy of the film, but be prepared that they aren’t even featured on the soundtrack. The Beatles’ answer to “Mamma Mia,” this is not! We may hear the first chord of “A Hard Day’s Night” in the opening scene, but it is followed by silence. This is simply Taylor-Wood’s invitation for us to remember that our Nowhere Boy’s dreams will become a reality – though we will not get to see it here.
The film’s focus from this point onwards is on Lennon’s relationship with the two women in his life. Living with his strict Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), who has brought him up almost as her own, John begins to break out of her cold parental control by secretly visiting his erratic but infectious mother Julia (Ann Marie Duff), who only lives a mile away but has had next-to-no-part in his upbringing.
The story begins to reflect a love triangle of sorts where Julia plays the mistress to Aunt Mimi’s role as the wronged wife. Julia tempts John away by passing on her love of music. “You know what it means, rock ‘n’ roll…” she whispers to him. “Sex!” she excitedly points out. Perhaps even a little too excitedly, some might argue.
The love triangle becomes quite literal when Taylor-Wood and writer Matt Greenhalgh expose a type of sexual tension between mother and son. At times this can be uncomfortable to watch, though other critics have argued that this element makes sense considering their distance during John’s childhood and his vulnerability as a sexually curious youth.
Whether this is an aspect of the story Taylor-Wood purely invents or chooses to exaggerate is not necessarily all that important. Her point is clear; John’s relationship with his mother would in turn have a huge impact on his relationship with rock ‘n’ roll and affect the music he would come to write. It is John’s song “Mother” that plays over the end credits of the film and it is through the relationship with their mothers that John and the overly baby-faced Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster) begin to truly bond.
As the battle to be John’s guardian ensues between Mimi and Julia, his performance at school deteriorates, but he finds solace playing his guitar and performing with his band The Quarrymen. Though the beginnings of John’s rock ‘n’ roll attitude begin to shine through, we are quickly reminded that he is still just a teenage boy when we see how the family heartache begins to take its toll and he has to face a particularly tragic incident.
Johnson acts his part movingly and tenderly, making it easy for the audience to warm to him though he bears only a passing resemblance to Lennon and lacks the quirkiness that many of John’s fans would remember him for. Sangster as well is likeable but much too childlike for the portrayal of only a two-year age gap. This is, of course, forgivable in light of the pair’s acting ability but Johnson’s film star good looks certainly betray some of Taylor-Wood’s more populist motivations for the movie.
The film might lack purpose in some respects, instead relying more on its dramatic scenes to create significance. Taylor-Wood does not make the mistake, however, of playing the story out like a soap opera. Rather, there is just enough emotion to make it a turbulent though generally enjoyable experience for both the characters and the audience.
Rating: 4 out of 5