Soon after the Beatles were officially kaput, John Lennon entered four months of primal therapy. The target of these sessions was his rather unpleasant childhood, specifically his abandonment by both parents. It resulted in Plastic Ono Band, one of the great uncomfortably personal records. (“My mummy’s dead/I can’t explain/So much pain/I could never show it/My mummy’s dead.”) For a handy tutorial on how to turn raw anguish into something safe and tidy, check out Nowhere Boy, an account of this episode writ in the cuddly language of middlebrow art-house programmers.
Played by Kick-Ass’ Aaron Johnson, 16-year-old Lennon is stuck with Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), who embodies the stiff-upper-lip cliché to a fault. (“Please, let’s not be silly,” she tells John as he grieves her husband’s sudden death.) He discovers that nearby lives his errant mummy (Anne-Marie Duff), a notorious kook who reacts to the return of her son with a love bordering on incestuous. Meanwhile, John gets into this new thing called “rock and/or roll,” starts a skiffle band and meets a nice young boy named Paul and another named George.
Here’s what Nowhere Boy does well: It has a lively turn from Johnson, who plays Lennon as an actor, embellishing his raucous behavior to mask inner sensitivity. It has Kristin Scott Thomas’ hilariously clipped line readings and electric facial expressions. It handles Lennon/McCartney’s rocky early stint with sensitivity, depicting John as perturbed that Paul was a) a better technical musician and b) almost as charismatic.
What it doesn’t do well is convey how deeply this incident scarred him. Lennon was so traumatized he didn’t seek proper treatment until his late 20s; at Nowhere Boy’s end, he’s a bit sad, but off to Hamburg with the Beatles! Writer Matt Greenhalgh, whose script for Control encased Ian Curtis in amber, follows the standard biopic template, but he’s also detail-oriented and into conveying a specific time and place beyond cliches. But he’s stuck with director Sam Taylor-Wood, whose insistent work would never tip you off that she’s also a conceptual artist, albeit one who works with Bono and the Beckhams.
Still, a movie named Nowhere Boy ought to be a lot more painful.