Young Lennon, in a maternal tug-of-war

Aaron Johnson stars as John Lennon in "Nowhere Boy," a piercing study of adolescence and a portrait of the future Beatle as a young man.
Aaron Johnson stars as John Lennon in "Nowhere Boy," a piercing study of adolescence and a portrait of the future Beatle as a young man.
Posted: October 15, 2010

There are two ways to describe Nowhere Boy, Sam Taylor-Wood's domestic drama set in 1950s Liverpool.

1. A piercing study of adolescence in which a 15-year-old boy, hungry for tenderness, heaves himself from the tidy domicile of his undemonstrative aunt to the disordered den of the unbalanced mother he hasn't seen since childhood.

2. A portrait of the artist John Lennon as a young man, torn between the dependability of his emotionally restrained Aunt Mimi and the drama of his psychologically unhinged mother, Julia.

Taylor-Wood stresses the universals rather than the specifics of John's youth. So don't go expecting a Fab Four origin story. The word Beatles is never uttered. But do go.

An accomplished visual artist making her feature debut, Taylor-Wood has crafted a movie about a boy (well played by Aaron Johnson) famished for love and searching for identity. She shows how he goes about getting crumbs of both from the estranged sisters, Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas, hiding emotions behind a Kabuki mask of self-control) and Julia (Anne-Marie Duff, an emotional cyclone blowing through life).

Based on a memoir by Julia Baird, John's half-sister, the atmospheric film is sparked by the performance of Johnson, who nicely captures the anarchic wit and antagonizing spirit Lennon exhibited in movies and interviews. More to the point, he conveys the impatience and melancholy of the Lost Boy who doesn't find himself when he reconnects with his long-lost Mum.

From the movie's first frame (accompanied by the opening chord of "A Hard Day's Night," the only note of Beatles music in a film that ends with Lennon's "Mother"), Taylor-Wood captures the sounds and textures of Liverpool and Blackpool, where a new beat is playing in the cafes and clubs.

Her lips a slash of crimson and her hips seductively swaying, Julia dances to Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You," vamping her son, who will express his percolating sexual desire with a more appropriate partner. Julia has no boundaries. But she does encourage his self-expression, teaching her boy how to play the banjo (in a lovely time-lapse sequence).

Though he doesn't see it, John's self-command comes from Mimi, as tightly focused as her younger sister is a blur of curls and seduction. In Taylor-Wood's film, the tug-of-war for John's heart is emotionally wrenching and beautifully realized. Yes, John meets Paul (Thomas Sangster) and they both meet George and sing "In Spite of All the Danger," a haunting song by the Quarrymen that provides the perfect grace note to Taylor-Wood's tale of rock-and-roil.


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey

at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/

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