Dir. Sam Taylor-Wood
(2010, R, 98 min)
★ ★ ★

Nowhere Boy is a music biopic that works because it’s less about the making of the music than it is about the making of the man. Telling the story of John Lennon as a teenager just discovering his love of rock music, its least interesting scenes are the ones of the forming of the band that would become the Beatles. Have you met my friend Paul? He’s pretty good on the guitar! Such scenes in such films tend toward self-consciousness. The characters are oblivious to the importance of meeting, while the film winks at the audience about the epochal encounter.

Kristin Scott Thomas, as Mimi

Gratefully, the screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh, based on a memoir by Lennon’s half-sister Julia Baird, doesn’t dwell on such rote history-in-the-making scenes. It’s more interested in two specific relationships in Lennon’s life: with his absent mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) and his aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas). The intimate focus allows the film to be about people instead of ticking away the beats of a music career.

Lennon is played by Aaron Johnson, who most recently played the title character in Kick-Ass. Upon the death of his rambunctious uncle, he finds himself alienated from his cold and withholding aunt Mimi and seeks out his birth mother, whom he only remembers in vague dreams about when he was a child. He’s surprised to learn that she lives nearby, visits her, and they bond over music during a trip to the Blackpool boardwalk. For a while they don’t discuss why she didn’t raise him. He’s afraid to ask and she’s afraid to tell.

The film does a good job of subtly indicating what might have kept Julia out of her son’s life. One scene in particular, following their high-energy reunion, shows her alone in her house with the lights turned off, refusing to answer the door. She alludes to undiagnosed psychological problems and her husband (David Morrissey) worries that she’ll have an episode. Manic depression is the implication, and her fragile relationship with her son could exacerbate her condition.

Anne-Marie Duff, as Julia

The prevailing theme is abandonment, which goes around between the three principal characters and has come to define their relationships. The sisters are estranged from each other and harbor resentment over John’s upbringing. They balance their own needs with their fear of losing him, shown especially well in Scott Thomas’s performance, which under its chilly exterior shows a brittle vulnerability. John, meanwhile, monitors his mother’s affections, watching jealously as they stray to his new bandmate Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster) and lashing out cruelly. There’s a fascinating, Oedipal quality between them, a mutual longing for a deep connection the other can’t quite fulfill.

The performances are uniformly strong, though debut feature director Sam Taylor-Wood, who is also Aaron Johnson’s fiancee, leans too heavily on melodrama, dialing up the sentimental score by Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory and conveying emotion mostly through the waterworks of her cast. There’s an explosive scene between John, Mimi, and Julia where all secrets are revealed, but I wished their bold emoting were balanced by a more restrained overall tone.

At its best, the film is about personalities shaped by old wounds and the fear of new ones. The film posits that that’s what influenced John Lennon during his formative years and thus influenced his music. Julia taught him how to play and their push-and-pull relationship inspired him to create. Had he come of age in the 21st Century, he might have invented Facebook instead.