I Can't Imagine John Lennon in Nowhere boy

Nowhere Boy (2010)
Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood
98 mins. Rated R (language, mild sexuality)
* *

Nowhere Boy was rushed into early U.S. release to coincide with what would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday. Alas, there is very little reason for you to make haste to see it; this film is—at best—a video rental for an evening in which you’re in the mood for something more schmaltzy than provocative.

If you want revelations about the making of The Beatles, look elsewhere. Nowhere Boy is a tepid relationship triangle whose only twist is that the trio in question consists of adolescent John (Aaron Johnson); his aunt and guardian, Mimi (Kristen Scott Thomas); and his biological mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). When John’s beloved uncle George dies, John is convulsed by rebellion and teenaged angst that leads him to seek out his birth mother. It’s not exactly like she’s hard to find--she’s Mimi’s sister and also resides in Liverpool. She’s also a loose party girl who plants the rock and roll seed in John’s soul. Soon we see John mastering his pawnshop guitar—and if you believe the soundtrack music can possibly come from that instrument you’ve obviously never held a guitar. John gathers a small group of other Liverpool quasi-rebels who share his love for American rock and African-American rhythm and blues. That circle, of course, includes George Harrison (Sam Bell) and Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster), the latter of whom is younger than John but knows way more about music and technique. Unless you were raised on another planet, you know the rest—Liverpool clubs to The Quarrymen to Germany to… The Beatles.

But, again, the film isn’t about the band. Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay is based (very loosely) on Julia’s memoir. It is really a battle for young John’s affections between buttoned-up Mimi and good-times Julia, and there’s quite a bit of implied sexual frisson between the latter two. But don’t expect anything risqué to be played out in Sam Taylor-Wood’s color-within-the-lines direction. The film meanders toward abrupt revelations that seem tacked on, and to forgiveness scenes that could have been written for the Lifetime channel. Let’s start with the fact that most of it is made up. John Lennon knew who his mother was and had extensive contact with her from the time he was eleven-years-old. Now let’s move onto the film’s pop psychology. It turns out that most of this is also fanciful; Lennon’s own memoirs are not exactly on par with Greenhalgh’s script. Add a flat tone to the production and direction, and this film veers dangerously close to turkey terrain. Were it not for Kristen Scott Thomas’s steely performance, it would be hard to care about any of what we see on the screen. She’s easily the best thing in the film and strikes all the right chords as an ice queen in search of her defrost button. Also superb is the doe-eyed Sangster as Paul. Sangster looks and acts the part of a fifteen-year-old--reticent, fearful, and seeking to fit in, but capable of occasional flairs of one-upmanship and resilience. (I only rate this film with two stars out of five in honor of the aforementioned performances.)

Aaron Johnson is actually just twenty, but he looks older and isn’t very convincing as John. When he takes one of his various tantrums, it comes off as a histrionic older person overacting rather than a bout of teenage rage. By contrast, Duff appears too young to be Julia. When she and Johnson appear together, one almost expects them to be a couple as they look the part. But the worst miscasting is reserved for Liverpool, which has been scrubbed and sanitized. One gets no sense whatsoever of the city as a played-out blue-collar grime pit. Those who know the story of The Beatles know that part of their story is covered in the filth of the city’s docks and the meanness of its streets. When Taylor-Wood touches on the city’s toughness—and it is onl y a touch—it feels and looks like an American Graffiti outtake. I half expected to see the leather-clad Liverpool punks burst into a song-and-dance routine.

The film lacks grit, verisimilitude, and coherence. Imagine this as the story of John Lennon? No, I can’t. Nor can I imagine he’d have had anything to do with this production if he was still among us. --LV

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