Nowhere Boy (The Weinstein Company, R)

The director offers up situations and characters but allows members of the audience to draw their own conclusions about them.

 

Nowhere Boy, the feature debut of British director Sam Taylor-Wood, takes a look at the early life of John Lennon. It focuses on the pivotal year in which he reconciles with his mother only to lose her to a car accident, receives his first guitar, starts up a skiffle band called the Quarrymen and meets Paul McCartney and George Harrison. It’s a biopic of the “portrait of the artist before he got famous” variety. It succeeds because it assumes you know how the story came out and avoids dropping cultural breadcrumbs for the Beatles fanatics, instead concentrating on the involving portrait of a troubled young man starting to find his place in the world.
 
Were I a publicist, I’d probably use the tagline, “The year John Lennon became John Lennon.” This isn’t far from the truth; Nowhere Boy focuses on the period during which Lennon (Aaron Johnson of Kick-Ass) turned from a sort of reflexive hooligan attracted by the outlaw aspects of rock’n’roll into a young man who realizes the power of music and the opportunities it offers him. Thankfully, the film doesn’t try to answer the ultimately unanswerable question about how this apparently ordinary schoolboy became a central figure of popular music, but it does give us a sense of where Lennon came from.
 
I’m not enough of a Beatles expert to know how closely Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay (based on a memoir by Lennon’s half-sister Julia Baird) adheres to the historical record. It presents a plausible story that often seems viewed from afar. The director offers up situations and characters but allows members of the audience to draw their own conclusions about them.
 
Lennon grows up in the household of his very proper aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) who provides him with two essentials: a secure home environment and something to rebel against. As a teenager he learns, much to his surprise, that his birth mother Julia (Ann-Marie Duff) lives nearby with her common-law husband and children. Much of the film centers on the relationship between the two sisters and the differing ways they facilitated Lennon’s growth; while Mimi provides stability and a stern work ethic, Julia provides inspiration, introducing him to music and the possibilities offered by the cultural revolution that was just getting under way. Julia also has a problem with boundaries and is overly affectionate, even sexual, with her teenaged son. In many ways she’s no more mature than he is, but through her imperfections she offers him entry into a world considered strictly out-of-bounds by her starchier sister.
 
Of course there’s also music. John forms The Quarrymen, named for Quarry Bank High School, which they attend, with his best friend Pete (Josh Bolt). The he meets up with Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster, looking about 12 instead of his character’s 15), who shows him that music can be an end in itself, not merely a way of showing off or rebelling. George Harrison (Sam Bell) also shows up before the band heads off to their first gig in Hamburg, which, if you subscribe to Malcolm Gladwell’s rule that it takes 10,000 hours of focused practice to become an expert in something, was the next crucial step in The Quarrymen becoming The Beatles. | Sarah Boslaugh

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