Part of the reason John Lennon is still fascinating three decades after his senseless death, is that new aspects of his personality and his work are only now coming to light. Even though much of his life is already known, there are still factors that contributed to his musical legacy that are only now understood.Unlike a lot films that have covered the former Beatle’s life, “Nowhere Boy” has offers a refreshing candid take on Lennon’s teen years, pulling now punches in depicting his sometimes contemptible behavior. Thanks to a committed and nicely shaded performance by Aaron Johnson, it’s still easy to get worked up over whether the lad can keep himself out of jail, much less achieve the greatness that eventually came his way.
The Lennon in this film might not get into so much trouble if he could resist his urge to tell authority figures what he thinks of them. When he’s busted for showing bus passengers his new pornographic magazine, he asks if the headmaster would be kind enough to return the periodical.
In part because of his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), Lennon develops a fervent interest in music. He and his new pal Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster) spend hours developing their chops and moving from the rag-tag folk music known as skiffle and toward rock. Lennon is clearly haunted by his mother because he sees little of her. She loves partying with her son, but is ill-equipped to actually raise him.
That task has been left to his straight-laced aunt Mimi Smith (Kristen Scott Thomas). Mimi nags Lennon into remembering to wear his glasses in public (he obviously hates them) and is constantly berating him for his less-that-stellar academic and disciplinary records. Both sisters fight for influence with the lad, even though he adores them both.
Screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh (“Control”) and freshman feature director Sam Taylor-Wood knock Lennon of his “Give Peace a Chance” pedestal, but still manage to make him just likable enough to hope the lad will avoid ruin.
They also have a remarkable eye for the minute details of Lennon’s life before he became a Beatle. It’s refreshing to see a film on the birth of the band that bothers to acknowledge that the future Sir Paul was and still is left-handed and that Lennon could be both pugnacious and loving in equal measure.
It’s also a pleasant change of pace to see a film about musicians that acknowledges that even gifted musicians like Lennon and McCartney worked diligently to hone their craft. You can hear the bungled chords and sloppy rhythms that novice instrumentalists make. There’s also a wonderful sequence where Lennon tries to master his banjo in real-time while the life in Julia’s house speeds by.
In addition to visual flourishes like this one, Taylor-Wood, a protégé of the late Anthony Minghella (“The English Patient”) has her mentor’s gift with actors. Johnson, Duff and Scott Thomas can go through their characters’ noble and less-than-noble traits with remarkable skill, and Scott Thomas delicately walks the line between upright and rigid.Tomorrow would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday. Because of the care and love involved in this production, it’s hard to think of a more moving or appropriate tribute.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2010 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Provincetown International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Provincetown International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Traverse City Film Festival For more in the 2010 Traverse City Film Festival series, click here.