"You're going nowhere," his school headmaster tells him.
"Is nowhere full of geniuses, sir?" the young John Lennon snaps back. "Because if it is, I do belong there."
The quick wit, sarcasm and self-confidence are evident in young Lennon, played with rebellious verve by Aaron Johnson. But the movie doesn't really make the case for Lennon's sense of self.
The Lennon here wasn't a genius — a boy with competitive drive and a fierce desire for the sort of fame that impresses the girls, a boy with a troubled upbringing, but with parents who encouraged and indulged his musical interests.
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The script, by Matt Greenhalgh and based on a memoir by Lennon's half-sister Julia Baird, details the tragedies John faced and the two women and one man who raised him. If there's a message to Nowhere Boy, it's that it takes two mothers to raise a rock 'n' roll icon.
Mimi, played to starched perfection by Kristen Scott Thomas, is the responsible aunt who kept him fed and clothed, punished him when he didn't crack down in school and who bought him his first guitars. But her sister Julia (Anne-Marie Duff, luminous) was his biological mother, a woman Mimi kept away from John. And when you meet mercurial, almost manic Julia, a flirt who never quite aged out of her loose-woman youth, you understand why.
But once John reconnected with her, Julia was hip enough to know rock 'n' roll and encourage John to take it up, but flighty enough to neglect her young daughters and take John to any place with a jukebox.
Mimi is so emotionally distant she doesn't even mourn when her husband, John's beloved uncle, dies.
Director Sam Taylor-Wood hits the high notes from this period in Lennon's pre-Beatles life, his discovery of Elvis Presley and the way girls reacted to Presley, his decision to start a band. The filmmaker even duplicates a couple of famous photos of Lennon with his first band, The Quarrymen, and in art school.
But the just-the-highs-and-lows approach leaves much of the life out of the piece. John's pranks and pals are here, the day he met Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster, sharp) and began an instant rivalry with him, the day George Harrison auditioned. But we get little sense of his interior life, what was going on in his head as school, girlfriends and music competed for his attention and music won out. His drive is suggested but never really felt in the performance.
But if you've read or seen Beatles history in literature or film, you'll adore Nowhere Boy for filling in more blank spaces about the early life that formed one of the seminal figures in rock history. For a guy destined to go nowhere, he went about as far as anyone ever did.