Nowhere Boy, Sam Taylor-Wood’s directorial debut, is the story of John Lennon’s (Aaron Johnson) teenage life and the complicated relationships between Lennon and his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), who raised him, and his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) with whom he only just reconnects. Lennon’s unusual family dynamics were instrumental in shaping who he was not only as a man, but as the musical icon he is considered today.
Lennon as played by Johnson is simultaneously vulnerable and full of bravado. As the film begins, he is clearly very close to his Uncle George (David Threlfall). They are both lively and gregarious, and the contrast to Mimi is immediately apparent. His emotions are right at the surface and he’s most interested in having a good time – he is youth personified. Meanwhile, Mimi is duty-bound and stoic and it is George’s death early on in the film that serves as a kind of catalyst for Lennon’s burgeoning relationship with his mother.
Following his uncle’s death, John begins a relationship with his mother, and her natural vivaciousness is a perfect complement to his own playful side. When it is revealed that Julia also shares a love of music, their bond grows even stronger. In fact, it is Julia who introduces John to much of the music that would be a foundation for what he would create with the Beatles. She teaches him the banjo and is fully supportive of his musical aspirations. Conversely, Mimi does not understand John’s love of music. Directly tied into his own rebelliousness, music serves as a release for much of the emotional turmoil in John’s life, as well as his own creative impulses.
Unfortunately for John, Julia is unable to be the mother he has always been missing. She lives with Bobby and they have two young daughters together. Her relationship with John begins to affect and in turn, take a toll on the fragile balance of her home life. Bobby is especially concerned for her mental and emotional well-being as it relates to John. As John’s initial happiness and excitement over having Julia in his life shifts to a more real understanding of her limitations, he can’t help but feel angry and resentful and his emotional state eventually has him lashing out at both Julia and Mimi.
Taylor-Wood goes out of her way to make the film about a family rather than about the famous John Lennon. John is shown to be smart and full of life, but also petty and immature. This is no hero worship story. On the contrary, John, Julia, and Mimi are all fleshed out as real people with a great deal of love and affection for one another even if it’s not always readily apparent to each other.
Nowhere Boy benefits immeasurably from its actors. Johnson gives Lennon a boyishness and vulnerability that works to establish him as the complex young man caught in the middle of a painful family drama. Scott Thomas delivers beautifully as the pragmatic Mimi. She is composed, but clearly filled with so much love for John. Duff plays Julia with a rollercoaster of emotions and complete abandon. Perhaps no scene offers a better example of their skillful acting than the moment when all is revealed to John. As Mimi finally tells how he came to live with her, John and Julia are simultaneously destroyed by the revelation and Mimi’s emotions are finally let out. It’s a powerful scene made even more so by the actors.
As Taylor-Wood is most interested in the family relationships of Lennon’s life, those moments in which his musical appreciation and education are the forefront are especially exciting to watch. As he learns the banjo or listens to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You” for the first time or whenever the Quarrymen perform, John comes alive in a way that is both new and familiar. In the context of the film, he’s young and struggling to understand why his mother abandoned him as a child, yet as music comes into his life he finds an outlet to the conflicting emotions he feels for his family. It’s a credit to Taylor-Wood that she takes such care in getting to the heart of John, the young man and eventually into the heart of John the musician.
As John begins to take his music more seriously, he meets Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and the two form a fast friendship that would go on to be one of the most important in his life. Paul is more serious and grounded than John, and he is able to reach John in times when nobody else can. As Paul introduces him to George, things come together quickly. One of the final scenes has John preparing to leave to Hamburg, a trip that would be immensely important in establishing the Beatles as the band they would become. The bittersweet tragedy of coming to know his mother only to have it cut so short would stay with John for the rest of his life.
Nowhere Boy is in the unique position of telling a story that so many are already familiar with and yet, still making it resonate so immediately. Lennon’s early life was filled with discovery and tragedy, yet in the end it’s about a young man coming of age despite overwhelmingly difficult circumstances. Taylor-Wood along with Johnson, Duff, and Scott Thomas, manage to bring the story to life with real warmth and respect for a figure many consider they know as well as their own family. Nowhere Boy stands as a lovely portrait of a young John Lennon at a pivotal moment in his life.
The DVD includes a few special features: a couple of deleted scenes and two featurettes on the making of the film. They’re the standard bonus fare, but nonetheless, are nice extras.