Combustible Celluloid
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With: Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Anne-Marie Duff, Thomas Brodie Sangster, David Morrissey, David Threlfall, Ophelia Lovibond, Josh Bolt, Sam Bell, Andrew Buchan
Written by: Matt Greenhalgh, based on the book by Julia Baird
Directed by: Sam Taylor-Wood
MPAA Rating: R for language and a scene of sexuality
Running Time: 97
Date: 10/29/2009

Nowhere Boy (2010)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Mama Don't Go...

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Here's a biopic that forgoes biographical facts in favor of emotional content. It cares more about the characters and their relationships than it does the factual or historical context of it all. For example, in one scene, young John Lennon (Aaron Johnson) tells his aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) that he's going to meet up with his band. "What do you call them again?" she asks. "I can never remember." Everyone in the audience already knows the answer, but thankfully director Sam Taylor-Wood and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh realize this. John answers back, "Does it really matter?"

So instead, rather than a story about John Lennon, Nowhere Boy tells the story of a sad, angry Liverpool teen who lives with his aunt and begins a new relationship with his estranged mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). Mimi runs a tight ship, but the good-time Julia listens to rock 'n' roll records and teaches John to play the banjo. Eventually John begins to wonder just why his mother didn't actually raise him, and the reason is presented as a secret, kept until the climactic blowout in the third act. Meanwhile, this outspoken, artistic lad meets a kid named Paul (Thomas Brodie Sangster) and starts a band. Maybe you've heard of them.

Sometimes this approach works and sometimes it doesn't. Nowhere Boy is still based on a true story, and there's only so far it can go in re-arranging the facts for dramatic impact. Not to mention that the conflict between John, his mother and his aunt really doesn't amount to much; if we were talking about just some poor, sad, ordinary boy rather than Lennon, there certainly wouldn't be a movie here. Duff and Thomas both give it their all, however, each pained and governed by their past deeds; they emerge with two superb, fully-rounded performances. Johnson (Kick-Ass) doesn't always convince as Lennon, but he at least settles on a kind of Lennonesque essence.

The movie does go a bit into the music, as Iain Softley's Backbeat (1994) did, focusing on a young, enthusiastic cover band that pays tribute to Chuck Berry and other early rockers. But Nowhere Boy saves a showstopper for its closing moments. We see a legendary recording session as John, Paul and George step up to the mike for "In Spite of All the Danger" (written by Paul and George). That song -- credited to the Quarrymen -- remained a valuable rarity for decades until it was finally released on the Beatles "Anthology" CDs. This rendition of it has a real power, and a hint of greater things to come... without actually saying anything out loud.

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