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Just Like Starting Over

MOVIE REVIEW
Nowhere Boy (2009)

NWB15 42
Icon Film Distribution

Biopics of musical figures are becoming commonplace. What was fresh with "Ray" and "Walk the Line" is now not so much. And when the subject of your film is famously bigger than Jesus, it’s difficult to bring a unique selling point to your movie. John Lennon inspires deathless admiration for his music, his sardonic wit and his guitar playing. But this movie is not really about him. It’s about the women who brought him up.

Teenage John (Aaron Johnson) lives with his uncle George (David Threlfall of "Shameless") and aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) until his uncle’s sudden death. When he spots a strange woman at the funeral, he realizes this is his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) who disappeared from his life as a child.

Aunt Mimi is a tightly wound woman, always in impeccable clothes and a pillbox hat, smoking cigarettes as she relaxes perfectly upright on her settee. She clearly loves John, but any teenager would find living in her house a strain. On the other hand, Julia is a slut — a woman who keeps a messy home, an unforgivable sin among the Liverpudlian housewives of the time. She wears bright colors, has her hair in curlers during the day, and is perpetually restless in her evident neediness. So how will John balance the influences of his mother and his aunt as he begins to find his own voice as a musician, artist and smartarse?

While director Sam Taylor-Wood is an experienced video artist (most notoriously for a 107-minute video of David Beckham sleeping) and photographer, this is her first film and she is still finding her way. The pre-release publicity in Britain has focused on her engagement with Mr. Johnson, who is more than 20 years her junior; and it’s clear from how he is filmed that she fell in love with him on set. It’s refreshing — but unusual — to see a male actor swooned over in quite this way, but Ms. Taylor-Wood sacrificed some of the attention that the other actors needed. At times, the camera lingers too long on Mr. Johnson to the detriment of the pacing or the focus of the scene, leaving the whole film slightly off-kilter.

Mses. Scott Thomas and Duff are exceedingly well cast. Ms. Scott Thomas is the current queen of a long line of gorgeous British actresses willing to subvert their beauty to their parts, unafraid of looking unsympathetic or ugly. The combination of fierce love for and pure annoyance with her nephew strikes very true for anyone who’s had to deal with teenagers. The scene where she and John haggle together in a guitar shop, ending with them giving the same smile, was a little piece of perfection. Mr. Johnson and Thomas Sangster, who plays Paul McCartney, have a harder time of it. Neither especially resemble the men they are portraying, but their accents are spot on as is their sense of teenage rebellion, determination and chutzpah.

There’s a lot of energy and excitement in the film. Shot mostly outdoor with great attention to period detail, it manages not to get bogged down in fanboy trivia while adding in little touches such as John’s bike ride to school past Strawberry Fields. I was dreading the moment when John and Paul met, but the film seemed less interested in historical pastiche than demonstrating the moment when two like minds met for the first time. There are very few Beatles songs in the film, which is right; we need to hear the music that influenced their initial style. "Nowhere Boy" is also about the experience of listening to music, and what different styles of music mean to different people. While listening to music and otherwise, Mr. Johnson knows how to use his face to show his every thought.

Ms. Duff is as fearless as Ms. Scott Thomas about how she comes across, as she wheedles, cries, flirts and causes scenes everywhere she goes. Her obvious fragility is understated, and therefore all the more upsetting. The estrangement between the sisters is well handled, but their big confrontation is not the cathartic explosion it needed to be. It’s not the fault of any of the actors; lazy editing and a seeming disinterest in the importance of the scene made it drag. It means the whole film falls slightly and regrettably flat. It should not have happened. But missteps such as this are to be expected in a debut film, and as a whole "Nowhere Boy" should make everyone involved proud.

NOWHERE BOY

Opens on Dec. 25 in Britain and on Oct. 8, 2010 in New York.

Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood; written by Matt Greenhalgh, based on the memoir “Imagine This: Growing Up With My Brother John Lennon” by Julia Baird; director of photography, Seamus McGarvey; edited by Lisa Gunning; costumes by Julian Day; produced by Douglas Rae, Robert Bernstein and Kevin Loader; released by the Weinstein Company (United States) and Icon (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Aaron Johnson (John), Anne-Marie Duff (Julia), Kristin Scott Thomas (Mimi), David Morrissey (Bobby), David Threlfall (Uncle George), Thomas Brodie Sangster (Paul), Josh Bolt (Pete), Sam Bell (George) and Ophelia Lovibond (Marie).

Comments

Just to add that although this is indeed Sam Taylor-Wood's first feature, she has directed before. Her section of Destricted from 2006 might not be to everyone's taste, but her short film Love You More from last year is worth anyone's time.

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