The Beatles' story - their childhoods, their teens, their days in Hamburg before they broke through in England and then the USA - has been fodder for books, documentaries, even a couple of middling movies (I prefer Backbeat to the pretentious The Hours and Times).
So Nowhere Boy, Sam Taylor-Wood's exploration of John Lennon's late teens, doesn't cover much new ground. But it does offer a pop psychology look at Lennon's confused home life. (Those primal screams in Mother from his solo career had to come from somewhere, right?)
In Nowhere Boy, Lennon (played by Aaron Johnson of Kick-Ass) looks to be 16 or 17. He lives with his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Uncle George (David Threlfall), sharing a sense of humor with his uncle, with whom he listens to The Goon Show on the radio.
Still, he occasionally has contact with his mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). She and her husband and their two daughters live not far away. She is, as we learn, mentally fragile; unable to cope with being an unwed teen-age mother, she gave John over to older sister Mimi to care for, then got on with her life. But she obviously enjoys the company of her cheeky teen-age son, though she doesn't see him often.
After his uncle dies, however, John begins to bristle at his aunt's stuffy discipline. Bored with school, he gets expelled, though he keeps it from her. When she finds out and threatens to punish him, he runs away to stay with Julia and her new family. But he quickly ges the message that Julia's husband considers him a threat to Julia's apparently tenuous mental equilibrium.
So John effects a truce with Aunt Mimi, who buys him a guitar to pursue his aspirations of starting a skiffle band. Playing a mix of Lonnie Donegan, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, he and his group begin to find some success - and attract a younger guitar player, Paul McCartney.
The on/off relationship between the moody Lennon, his aunt and his mother really amount to a kind of glorified soap opera. Through it, we see glimmers of the rock-star-to-be, thanks to the sly exuberance of Johnson's performance. He's matched by Thomas, who lets the aunt's affection peek out from behind her starchy exterior. Duff, meanwhile, plays a woman who seems always on the verge of hysteria.
Johnson does a plausible and engaging impression of the teen Lennon. It's an interesting version of his life, fictionalized and dramatized as it may be. On the other hand, if the character wasn't John Lennon, would anyone be interested in the same story? That's hard to imagine.