From the standpoint of purely personal pleasure, Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy was the most pleasant experience at the movies I had in a weekend that was not without its other pleasures. But I am a Beatles fan and a John Lennon fan and I’m fully aware that that colors my appreciation of this movie, so I’m factoring that into my praise for the film. Even so, Nowhere Boy strikes me as one of the more remarkable biopics to come along in a while, not in the least because it smacks of authenticity without too obviously trying to advertise the fact.
It starts with the opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night” and a dream sequence that prefigures the opening of Richard Lester’s 1964 film of the same name. But in Nowhere Boy, which opens in 1955, the world of the Lester film doesn’t even exist in embryonic form. It’s good to know that from the outset, because Nowhere Boy is very carefully not a movie about the Beatles, even though young incarnations of Paul (Thomas Brodie Sangster, Bright Star) and George (newcomer Sam Bell) show up before the end. In fact, the word “Beatles” is never uttered—and is even rather charmingly skirted at the end of the film. This is instead about what made John Lennon (Aaron Johnson, Kick-Ass) John Lennon, about his relationship with his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his long-absent mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff, The Last Station).
Nowhere Boy is a movie where I have the inescapable feeling that the more you know about Lennon’s earlier years going in, the more emotional impact the film will have. I can’t prove this, since I can’t see it without a sizable knowledge of the backstory. But I know that personally I found an added element of suspense to the film that came about because I was waiting for this or that to happen—waiting to see the drama, which I already knew was there in outline, play out. I think that viewers who do know the basics of Lennon’s history will generally feel gratified by the manner in which the events are portrayed here—the way they have been shaped into a viable dramatic structure. (Although one moment needs no shaping and is already dramatic and tragic enough.)
The crux of the film lies in the story of John discovering his mother when he was 15—according to the film, by spotting her on the fringes of the funeral for his beloved Uncle George (David Threlfall, Hot Fuzz). Learning that Julia lives within walking distance of his own home, he strikes up an acquaintance with the mother he hasn’t seen since he was 5 years old. He quickly finds in her a woman nothing like her sober-minded sister, Mimi. Julia is, it seems, a kindred spirit with a streak of wildness as great as or greater than his own.
Julia teaches him how to play the banjo and takes him on outings. It’s an odd relationship—the gap in their contact skewing the tone to a point where they’re almost equals, where Julia is nearly a chaste girlfriend to him. But the problem is that more than this, it’s a mother he needs and that he’s looking for, and Julia isn’t really equipped for that role any more than she had been years earlier when Mimi became his surrogate mother. “She’ll break your heart,” Mimi warns him—and no doubt she does, but more by the ultimate tragic loss of her than by anything she actively does to him.
This is a warm, winning film helped no end by Ms. Taylor-Wood’s attention to detail. It truly feels as if what we’re seeing is taking place in the 1950s. She doesn’t depict the era as quaint. It is simply allowed to be. The depiction of Lennon’s instant conversion to wanting to be Elvis is undoubtedly simplified for dramatic effect, but like most aspects of the film, it feels right. So do the seemingly inauspicious meetings with Paul and George—and the hint that there’s much more beneath the bond with Paul that’s established near the end. Frankly—and assuming you’ve an interest in the subject—I can’t imagine not loving this deliberately small film. And if you want to find out, I wouldn’t waste time, because I doubt it will be around long. Rated R for language and a scene of sexuality.