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Nowhere Boy

A new film offers touching insight into John Lennon's early years in Liverpool.

Nowhere Boy (R)

It’s about a teenage John Lennon — played by Aaron Johnson, barely 19 at the time of filming — but grownups will still love Nowhere Boy, which explores the losses the rock legend endured as a child. Lennon never knew his father and barely knew his mother, and those scars simultaneously tormented him and fueled his artistry.

Based on a memoir by Lennon’s half-sister, Julia Baird, Nowhere Boy introduces the original Beatle as a mischievous 15-year-old being raised in working-class Liverpool by his rigid and unaffectionate maternal aunt, Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), and his fun-loving, warm Uncle George (David Threlfall). It’s George who buys Lennon his first musical instrument, a harmonica. When George drops dead of a sudden heart attack, Lennon reaches out tearfully to Mimi, who snaps, "Please, let's not be silly." Soon, Lennon discovers that his estranged mother Julia — the "Julia" of the song he would write years later — lives just down the road.  Anne-Marie Duff does a fantastic job in the role of this complicated woman — creative, flirtatious, most likely bipolar — who, when she reconnects with her son, practically smothers him with the love she has had trapped inside of her all these years. The rest of Nowhere Boy chronicles how the two women in Lennon's life vie for his favor, and how Lennon, torn, pours himself more deeply into the music scene, forming his first band, The Quarrymen. While recruiting bandmates, he meets sweet and guileless Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster). Though McCartney seems too straitlaced to match Lennon's rock ideal — Elvis Presley — Lennon connects with him when he learns McCartney's mother has recently died of cancer. Heartbreaking loss, the film tells us, seeks company.

First-time feature director Sam Taylor-Wood thoroughly immerses us in the atmosphere of mid-1950s Liverpool, although she's a bit plodding in introducing the characters. She also seems too intent on keeping the audience at arm’s length during the more emotion-packed sequences, but Johnson, channeling Lennon’s coyness and charm, makes up for what Taylor-Wood leaves out. (As a side note, she and her star Johnson, 23 years her junior, got engaged in October 2009 and became parents in July.)

You come away from Nowhere Boy with a better understanding of a music icon you grew up with. You see and feel and taste a period and place familiar previously as little more than a sepia-toned backdrop. Most importantly, you witness a set of complex individuals, connected by family ties, as they leave indelible impressions on each other.