After a clever opening that mimics the first moments and sounds of A Hard Day’s Night, Nowhere Boy appears on the verge of committing the worst sort of biopic mythmaking, thanks to a scene where the young, acerbic John Lennon (Aaron Johnson) speaks truth to power by telling off a headmaster and declaring his own genius with a caustic grin. It suggests Lennon arrived fully formed, filled with swagger and destined for greatness. Fortunately, Nowhere Boy, the feature debut of photographer and conceptual artist Sam Taylor-Wood, backs off from there, letting the Lennon we know emerge from the half-formed, easily bruised psyche of a teenage kid from Liverpool.
As played by Johnson, Lennon begins the film as a music-mad prankster with little use for school, an eye for trouble, and a need to be loved that wars with his impulse to take the piss out of any situation. Left alone with the strict, loving aunt (Kristin Scott Thomas) who raised him from childhood after his uncle’s death, he reconnects with his unstable mother (Anne-Marie Duff), who turns him on to the American rock ’n’ roll then just making its way to England. Donning leather, growing out his sideburns, and creating the best approximation of a pompadour his hair will allow, he starts a skiffle band as mother and aunt vie for his attention.
Nowhere Boy is modest in scope and more rewarding for it, highlighted by particularly strong performances by Thomas and Johnson, and a keen sense of time and place. Thomas, in particular, is a model of restraint, letting her affection for the kid she regards as the son she never had remain apparent even when quarreling with him. The film could use a touch more of her understatement. Taylor-Wood nicely underplays moments like the first meeting of Lennon and McCartney (played by the pocket-sized Thomas Brodie Sangster), presenting it as just two teenage music fans getting to know each other, which, of course, they were. But her film, scripted by Matt Greenhalgh, cranks up the overheated Oedipal themes and family drama while letting the narrative turn into a shapeless sprawl. It’s a tender, but sometimes untended, portrait of the artist as a young man—and occasionally as a young asshole—that’s handsome, dutiful, and finally, a little dull.