At first glance, Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Man sounds just a little bit too cutesy. The movie, which covers the youth of John Lennon, starts with the death of John’s Uncle George, covers both his attempts to reconcile with his mother Julia (portrayed here as being bipolar) and his troubles relationship with the aunt who actually raised him, details how John came to form his own band (The Quarrymen) and first met Paul McCartney and George Harrison, and ends with John preparing to leave for Germany. Yet the movie works surprisingly well and, by the end, is actually quite touching regardless of whether you idolize John Lennon or if you think Imagine is one of the most overrated songs of all time. By refusing to indulge in any easy sentimentality about either John Lennon or the iconic figure he would eventually become (the word “Beatles” is never uttered at any point in the film), Taylor-Wood crafts a touching coming-of-age story about an alienated teenager trying to find peace with his dysfunctional existence. The fact that the teen is going to grow up to be the John Lennon is secondary to the plot.
The film works mostly because of the cast. The young John Lennon is played by Aaron Johnson who, earlier this year, was the lead in Kick-Ass. I have to admit that I didn’t care much for Johnson in Kick-Ass. His performance seemed generic and bland and he was overshadowed by Nicolas Cage, Chloe Grace Moretz, Mark Strong, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and just about everyone else in the movie. Here, however, Johnson gives a strong, sympathetic performance as a character who often comes across as being neither. He both manages to capture the young Lennon’s sensitivity as well as his anger and cocky arrogance.
However, the movie truly belongs to the two actresses playing Lennon’s aunt and mother, Kristen Scott Thomas and Anne-Marie Duff. Scott Thomas has an especially difficult job as her character is far less flamboyant and, at first sight, a lot less interesting as Duff’s. However, as the film progresses, Scott Thomas starts to subtly reveal the dry humor that lies underneath her character’s serious expression. As for Duff, she dominates the film as surely as Julia dominated her son’s life. Duff doesn’t resort to any of the easy (and insulting) clichés that are usually used to represent bipolar disorder on film. Instead, she captures both the exhilarating high of being manic along with the constant fear of the depressive episode that we always know is destined to follow. It’s a spot-on performance that elevates this film above the standard coming-of-age story.
Wisely, neither the director nor her actors ever get caught up in the fact that their film is about the John Lennon. There’s no portentous foreshadowing or awkwardly staged moments designed to specifically make you go, “Hey, that’s John Lennon!” Even the first time that Lennon meets Paul McCartney and, later, George Harrison is handled in a casual, off-hand manner. Taylor-Wood has enough faith in her audience to believe that we’ll be able to understand the importance of John being introduced to a younger guitar player named Paul without bashing us over the head with the fact that this is the Paul McCartney. As such, while you’re always aware that this is a movie about John Lennon, you can also see the movie as simply being the story of an alienated teenager who finds salvation through music.