BluRay/DVD Reviews

NOWHERE BOY

By • Feb 2nd, 2011 •

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When the first Beatles movie opened in New York City in 1964, my cosmopolitan, older friend dragged me to it. She was 11, going on 18, and we were accompanied by her mother. (Actually, my sophisticated friend was probably pressured into inviting me because our parents were friends.) I wore a homemade badge that read “Beetles, yes! Beatles, no!” I pinned it to my blouse because I did NOT want to mistaken for a teeny bopper. I had the belief–which experience has proved at least partially true–that children are wise, cautious, and communicative, whereas teenagers are everything other. As I was eight, short, chubby, and wearing orthopedic shoes, it was probably unnecessary for me to separate myself from the herd by wearing a sign, but I wanted to make sure that my belief was visible to all.

But whether or not I was ready to admit it, the Beatles got to me. I’d heard a couple of their songs previously, when a friend’s mother bought the 45 of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” with “Saw Her Standing There” on the B side. Both were catchy, although I wouldn’t have admitted I felt that way. Watching the movie, I was filled with a kind of chest-opening happiness, combined with a gut-deep hunger, which I also wouldn’t have admitted to. It was exciting; it was SEX–but I would have washed my own mouth out with soap had I realized what my incipient feelings portended.

John immediately became my favorite Beatle. I imagined that I was one of the few young girls who really appreciated him–he was so witty, and so smart, so sardonic and so–cute–although not in a Pretty Boy way, like Paul. I was trying so hard not to be typical of girls my age; I was oblivious to the fact that my feelings were, in fact, absolutely typical of girls my age.

Later, like many other people, I hated Yoko for wrecking the Beatles and messing with John’s destiny (although, if his original destiny was to tour perpetually for the next five decades, I can now see that Yoko rescued him), and I cried in shock and horror, realizing that an era–my youth?–ended with his death. I was living on the Upper Westside at the time, and I walked down to the Dakota on 72nd Street and bought a John Lennon memorial T-shirt from one of the entrepreneurial street vendors who materialized for such events. Later, shocked by my own lapse of judgment, I put the T-shirt into a drawer and never wore it. But I kept it. Perhaps now is the time to sell it on E-Bay?

But I was never a Beatles fanatic. I knew little about their personal lives, unless it came up on the six o’clock news. The teeny bopper magazines (yes, I read them, although I NEVER was one) of the time purred about how cute, soulful, and boy-next-door the Rock Idols were, but never revealed the sordid details of their childhoods. Mainstream popular culture hadn’t met Oprah at the time.

This walk down memory lane is all to say that, while I had a sentimental attachment to the long-gone lad, I knew nothing of John Lennon’s family history when I saw the DVD of NOWHERE BOY. Certainly, discovering the history of a revered figure, years later, brings its own patina of nostalgia, but I believe that the wonderful performances in this film, along with the specificity of its historical locations and art direction, will be evocative for anyone who enjoys a “coming of age” film.

NOWHERE BOY charts John Lennon’s (Aaron Johnson) course from school boy to nascent rocker, and it shows us how the Beatles came together (all present, except for Ringo by the end of the film) but it’s only incidentally about the birth of one of the most influential bands of the 20th century. The central conflict is between John’s aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), both fighting in their own ways for John’s affection. Buttoned-up Aunt Mimi has taken charge of John for years, and it’s only when he is midway through his teens that he yearns to learn whom his mother is, and what that has to do with his bad dreams. He finds Julia–his impulsive, sexy, troubled Mum–and drama, revelations, rapprochement, and tragedy ensue. Also, both women encourage his musical development, although Mimi isn’t at all fond of rock and roll.

NOWHERE BOY is beautifully designed and art directed. The clothes–whether enveloping reluctant public school boy, starched British matron, or Across the Pond Elvis wannabe–are well rendered. The representation of English countryside in the ’50s is spot-on “BBC Presents.” But the best things about NOWHERE BOY are the casting, directing, and performances. And the cinematography, lighting, and the editing, which cannily capture said performances, and give them the screen time to unfold. Time after time, the camera stays with the actor for seconds, allowing viewers to fathom the complexity of a reaction shot.

Aaron Johnson captures a teenaged Lennon, a mixture of arrogance, youthful angst, and narcissism, tempered by sensitivity, enthusiasm, and wisdom. Kristin Scott Thomas has a plum part in Mimi–what actor would NOT like to play a character who is very emotional but is perpetually constrained by a stiff upper lip? Scott Thomas’ beautiful features have aged into an enigmatic mask that sometimes slips–especially at the eyes–and it serves her very well in this role. The camera is always capturing her restraint about to give way, her sensitive beauty at war with the stern dowager trappings. Anne-Marie Duff, whose work I was unfamiliar with–does a fabulous job of sliding between self-confident sexuality, winsome neediness, and desperate depression. The rest of the actors–including Thomas Brodie-Sangster as an impossibly young Paul McCartney–are just as good. NOWHERE BOY is a testament to the craft of acting for film.

A couple of comments about the add-ons that are packaged with this DVD. The special features, while pleasant enough, do not add much to the experience of the movie. The deleted scenes don’t reveal new dimensions of character or story, and the “featurettes” are really lengthy trailers for the movie (something that seems to be happening a lot lately). I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Sam Taylor-Wood (the director) is a woman, but I think I would probably have learned that by going to IMDB. (In fact, IMDB reveals something that the featurettes do not–the 44 year old director and 21 year old Aaron Johnson [Lennon in the film] have been a couple since they made NOWHERE BOY!)

There was one extra that I did truly appreciate, however. English is my first (be honest, ONLY) language, but my ability to instantly translate British into American is waning as I age. So the subtitles were a most welcome bonus.

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