Think back on as many films about John Lennon as you possibly can. Ignore the films that actually featured the man from A Hard Day's Night to The U.S. vs. John Lennon and just consider the ones that attempted to provide insight into what formed the man's regarded genius. Not a very long list is it? In the few like Backbeat and the telefilm, Two Of Us, where Lennon had a significant role instead of a background cameo made for kitsch or a laugh, the variant focuses on Lennon's life have done little justice into justifying why he is considered one of the greatest songwriters who has ever lived. Sam Taylor-Wood's focus on Lennon's teenage years in Nowhere Boy is a barren soap opera of a film that puts more emphasis on his mood swings than what made his music so great.
For the film's first half-hour we meet the lad named John (Aaron Johnson) and his cheerful relationship with his Uncle George. While his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott-Thomas) quietly reads and smokes, the cool Uncle shares alcohol and puts a radio speaker in his room. Until he drops dead. At the funeral, John notices a striking redhead keeping her distance from the family. Turns out this woman is John's birth mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), who has been out of his life since the age of five for unknown reasons. When his mate tracks her down, seemingly a stroll through the park and around the corner from Mimi's, Julia and John become reacquainted with mom compelled to show how affectionate she is towards her boy.
As John gets into continued trouble at school, he hides his suspension from Mimi and spends his days with Julia who shows him how to strum a guitar. Relations with his aunt become more and more strained, John decides to form an impromptu rock band, The Quarrymen, with friends from school who eventually introduce him to a young guitarist named Paul (Thomas Sangster).
By now we have begun to leave the opening to John's interest in music and become settled into more conventional biopic territory about what is eventually to become of the Beatles. Until Mimi uses the full Lennon name in anger, Nowhere Boy could have been about any ol' Bloke named John with mommy issues and a need to emulate Elvis. This "oh, this is a John Lennon movie" moment is achingly grating, but hardly compared to Matt Greenhalgh's screenplay which has nothing but a fleeting interest in connecting the themes of sex, passion or love to Lennon's music or his actions as a teenager caught between abandonment and structure.
Aaron Johnson's performance as Lennon does not help matters either. Coming off as equal parts arrogant bore and someone trying to emulate Lennon on karaoke night, Johnson never develops a version of the man (as boy) that draws out our sympathy. Just another semi-tortured artist who pushes people away when he sees fit and apologizes when its necessary for us to care about his frustrations. Much better are the two women in his life. As she did in I've Loved You So Long, Kristin Scott-Thomas plays the mother figure who must act accordingly with the secrets she possesses. Anne-Marie Duff, as the sole bastion of energy in the film, succeeds just on personality alone. The potential incestuous element of the film's early scenes which threaten to turn this into this year's Saving Grace, are thankfully toned down as the film goes on, but only exposes how Wood was either unable to follow through or mistaken to introduce it in the first place.
By the time we get to the big revelation scene about the riff between Mimi and Julia, we are treated to a giant soap opera flashback that winds up raising more questions than the answers Nowhere Boy so sloppily avoids in the setup and occasional clue it drops. Perhaps such an artist can never be explained in a conventional biopic and deserves an experiment as bold as Todd Haynes' I'm Not There. Cause the real Lennon sure isn't here.