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In April Aaron Johnson will be introduced to most of the world as the titular character of Kick-Ass, but before he strapped on the spandex and the catchphrases, he had the gall to play one of the 20th century's most revered figures. In Nowhere Boy, which premiered at the London Film Festival last fall and is stopping by Sundance before a release from the Weinstein Company, Johnson plays a young and troubled John Lennon who resembles only in shades the cocky rock star who later claimed his band was bigger than Jesus. Johnson turns in a performance that's tender and engaging and funny and lovely, and it would make him a star even if he didn't have his own superhero franchise on its way.
Raised from the age of 5 by his strict and proper Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Uncle George (David Threlfall), John is a rebel waiting for the chance to break free, flirting with girls and bossing around his circle of friends but also timid at the dinner table at home. After his uncle dies, John seizes the opportunity to get back in touch with his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), who has lived in the same neighborhood all this time and has started a new family of her own. Mom encourages John's interest in rock and roll and teaches him to play the banjo, and before long John has started his own band, The Quarrymen, and met up with a 15-year-old guitarist named Paul McCartney.
But John's relationship with his mom is as mercurial as she is, and he struggles to keep up with a woman who treats him more like a friend than a son while also living with Aunt Mimi, who fiercely disapproves of her unpredictable sister. The relationship between the three of them forms the center of the film, making it a very unusual kind of musician's biopic and relieving the audience of having to watch, for the hundredth time, as John, Paul and George come up with "Please Please Me" or another early hit. But the trio of John, Mimi and Julia is also hard to keep track of, as John simultaneously begs for and pushes away his mother's approval, and Mimi scolds John's every curse word while also trekking out to buy his first guitar. They're as complicated as a real family, of course, and no moment among the three feels false, but it also becomes difficult as an audience to place ourselves within these relationships when we're not entirely sure where they stand.
The biggest victim of this confusion is Thomas's Mimi-- she's stellar, of course, but the character's thaw feels either rushed or nonexistent. It's clear she's a woman who didn't know how to be anything but strict and demanding to the nephew she loved, and that John loved and feared her equally in return, but their relationship develops fitfully from mother-son to more of a conversation between equals. The film ends with the note that John called Mimi every week until his death--she died in 1991-- but the strong bond that got them there sometimes gets overshadowed by Julia's bubbly personality and Johns burgeoning rockstar exploits.
The once exception to the lineup of great performances is Thomas Sangster-- known as the child actor from Nanny McPhee and Love Actually-- who makes the least convincing Paul McCartney of all time. They look nothing alike, Sangster's performance feels wooden, and the crucial friendship that develops between John and Paul near the end of the movie is only evident if you fill in the actual history for yourself.
Still, as a document of a legend in making, Nowhere Boy is practically peerless, reaching far beyond the typical musical discoveries to say something new about the man-- particularly remarkable given that the man in question is John Lennon. Director Sam Taylor-Wood isn't afraid to show off John's dark side, his bossiness and penchant for fights, and that openness helps Johnson create his magnetic and thrilling performance. The Weinsteins will likely be holding back on this one for an Oscar-style push-- I'm serious when I say the kid from Kick-Ass could get nominated-- but if you like your historical family dramas with a side dish of rock and roll, it'll be worth the wait.
For more of our Sundance 2010 coverage, click here.