Actors who play famous people are always at a disadvantage. They come across as counterfeit. Performance too often shades into impersonation. In the case of "Nowhere Boy," Aaron Johnson is playing the teenage, pre-Beatles John Lennon in mid-1950s Liverpool, and the setting is unfamiliar enough to skirt most of the standard biopic problems.
Johnson does a terrific job of capturing Lennon's mannerisms without coming across like a puppet. After a while, you forget you're watching "John Lennon" altogether. It becomes a movie about a rebellious kid whose love of skiffle and rock 'n' roll music helps pull him through hard times.
The film's emotional dynamic is a triangle set up between John and his fun-loving, dissolute mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), who gave him up in his infancy, and John's upright aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), Julia's sister, who raised him. It's effective but schematic storytelling.
Director Sam Taylor-Wood and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh are overfond of British kitchen sink/Angry Young Man realism – surely there must have been more larky spiritedness in the young Lennon – and the scenes involving the nascent stirrings of the Beatles are undercut, through no fault of his own, by the actor playing Paul McCartney, Thomas Brodie Sangster, who looks to be around 11 instead of 15.
The film ends with John and his fellow musicians headed for a concert date in Hamburg, Germany. It's a touching denouement because we know what's ahead: This nowhere boy ends up everywhere – which is another form of nowhere. Grade: B (Rated R for language and a scene of sexuality.)
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