Barely two minutes into Nowhere Boy, a teenage John Lennon (Aaron Johnson) self-consciously puts on his signature glasses, then rides his bike past Strawberry Field. The rest of the movie isn’t as weighed down with these winking signifiers, but it struggles to balance its “Hey, why don’t you meet my friend Paul McCartney” instincts with its desire to tell a more personal, emotional story about Lennon’s fractured relationships with his mother (Anne-Marie Duff) and Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas). The signposts along the road to The Beatles tend to be as clunky as those early moments, with Lennon seemingly changing his personality overnight when first exposed to rock ’n’ roll.
The domestic drama that crowds out the musical development is uneven as well, although it’s clearly what director Sam Taylor-Wood (a photographer and video artist making her feature debut) is more interested in. Raised by his dour aunt (Thomas is an expert at playing dour) since he was 5 years old, Lennon reconnects with his unstable mother as a doorway to becoming a rebellious youth, and the tension between the two women tears him up emotionally. Although Johnson and Duff share some powerful moments, Taylor-Wood plays up a weird incestuous vibe that doesn’t end up going anywhere, and the melodramatic showdowns mostly fall flat. There’s been a strange trend lately toward making biopics about famous people before they did the things that made them worth making movies about. You could pair this one with Coco Before Chanel in a series called Before They Were Interesting.