Thursday, October 14, 2010

Movie Review: Nowhere Boy

Nowhere Boy ***
Directed by:
Sam Taylor-Wood.
Written By: Matt Greenhalgh based on the memoir by Julia Baird.
Starring: Aaron Johnson (John), Kristin Scott Thomas (Mimi), Anne-Marie Duff (Julia), Thomas Sangster (Paul), David Threlfall (Uncle George), David Morrissey (Bobby), Sam Bell (George).

It seems like pretty much every rock star in history will eventually have a movie made about them – one that explains why they were the way they were, and how it all comes back to their childhood. Nowhere Boy is not the first, nor will it likely be the last, movie to look at the life of John Lennon. But while the movie hits a lot of familiar notes, it also hits on some unexpected ones as well.

When the film opens John (Aaron Johnson) is in high school, living with his overly prim and proper Aunt Mimi (Kristen Scott Thomas). He hates school, and takes his home life for granted. We gather that he never sees his mother, and really doesn’t understand what happened to lead him to be raised by his aunt – and until a death in the family, he doesn’t much care either. But then his cousin finds out where John’s mom lives – and wouldn’t you know it’s in walking distance – and soon John is caught between two sisters who haven’t spoken in years, and seem like complete opposites. Its his relationship that John has with these two women who shape him – at least according to the movie.

There are some standard issue biopic scenes that seemingly every movie about a musician has – although they are handled well here. It’s funny to see Lennon sitting in a movie theater looking up at the screen and seeing Elvis, and have his eyes simply light up. He’s hooked – he will be a rock star. It’s even more fun to see John at first openly mock the new kid with genuine talent for the guitar – whose name of course is Paul. Paul is the more straight laced of the two – asking for tea when the rest of the boys are drinking beer. But he is also perhaps the only one who understands John. Later, we’ll meet George as well, although he never becomes a character of any depth.

But what makes the movie as interesting and as good as it is really is what goes on between John and Mimi, and later between John and Julia (Anne-Marie Duff- his birth mother). Like all teenagers, John has a rebellious streak and he resents the well meaning, but firm guiding hand that Mimi has raised him with. She created a stable home for him, but it is perhaps a little too cold for John, who longs for something else. When he finds Julia, he seemingly finds what he needs. She is a free spirit, and there is something undeniable sexual going on between her and John – not that they committed incest, but just that their natural feeling of love was tinged with something more complex. If the relationships between these three characters don’t work, then the movie falls flat. Luckily Aaron Johnson is quite good as John – he doesn’t much look like him, but does capture the humor, the pain and that miscehvious look behind the eyes that Lennon had. Kristen Scott Thomas is even better as the ever proper Mimi – but she makes her into more than just the standard issue stick in the mud – there is feeling there, even if she has a hard time expressing it. The last scene in the film between her and John almost makes you cry. And Anne Marie Duff excels in perhaps the most difficult role in the film – there is something unbalanced about Julia, and she gets the scenes of conflicted feeling of love – maternal, sexual, etc – pretty much just right. These three performances would be reason enough to see the movie – and add in Thomas Sangster (from Love, Actually) as Paul and you have a fine ensemble.

Nowhere Boy doesn’t really feel all that new or different, but it does what it does with honesty and intelligence. There are few moments where director Sam Taylor-Wood is perhaps a little too on the nose (closing the movie with Lennon’s song “Mother” for example is far too obvious), but overall, she brings a sensitivity to the movie that is quite rare. Nowhere Boy isn’t one of the best musical biopics you’ll ever seen – but it’s still a good one.

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