It's hard to understand what kind of pleasure you're supposed to find in Nowhere Boy, Sam Taylor-Wood's boring, poorly paced account of John Lennon's teenage years. When compared to riskier Beatles-inspired films like Backbeat and The Hours and Times, Taylor-Wood's addenda to the Lennon legend are minor enough to appeal only to either psycho-musicologists (if there is such a thing) or frothing Beatlemaniacs. The scope of this film is so modest and its melodrama is so pedestrian that any connection between this sullen teen's early family struggles and the music he eventually wrote and performed seem not just wildly hypothetical but entirely accidental.
The film follows young Lennon (Aaron Johnson) as he flirts, smokes, skips school, practices guitar, and generally exasperates his aunt Mimi (Kristen Scott Thomas), with whom he has lived since he was a boy. But it also looks squarely at Lennon's queasy, vaguely Oedipal relationship with his mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). John drifts into Julia's life after he spots her at his uncle's funeral, and she instantly greets him like both a long-lost son and a potential lover.
In one of the film's few bold touches, this strange relationship builds to some kind of climax when mother and son lie on a sofa and listen to Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" while John fantasizes about an earlier tryst in the woods with a young girl. Eventually, the indeterminate, foredoomed nature of John and Julia's erratic parent-child bond is cleared up in a scene between John, Julia, and Mimi that, in a flashback-fueled attempt to light some grand emotional fireworks, deploys stock revelations about as potent as a fistful of waterlogged bottle rockets.
As Lennon, Johnson sneers habitually, stares meaningfully, punches out a bandmate or two frequently, and is onscreen constantly. He does have a measure of negative charisma; much like The Social Network, Nowhere Boy is perversely compelling when showing how many geniuses are complete assholes. But because the film either omits or elides any of Lennon's artistic triumphs — the first song he shares with a very young Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster) is shockingly generic — his unbridled arrogance gnaws away at the corners of every scene. It would have been nice to observe Lennon's emergent talent, but his ambition is the sharper focus of the film. He's stirred by images of Elvis Presley not because Elvis is a new kind of artist but because his fame represents a possible blueprint for romantic and financial success.
Nowhere Boy is most objectionable when it pulls the old Forrest Gump trick of dropping insipid, obvious allusions to well-known songs down the backs of certain scenes. Look, he just walked by Strawberry Fields! Hey, did you hear that one girl dismiss him by saying, "He's a loser"? (Do you think Lennon repeated that declaration to himself — "I'm a loser" — at that very moment and then filed it away for future reference?) And the false modesty emanating from a Beatles film too coy to say the word "Beatles" is so suffocating that it makes you wanna die.
Opening Friday, November 5th