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Movie Review: "Nowhere Boy"

Holley Hyler is an IT consultant and published freelance writer living in New York.

An Interesting Focus on the Maternal Influence

As a teenager, I was entranced by the film In His Life: The John Lennon Story, starring Philip McQuillan as a troubled young Lennon. It followed his teenage years and rise to fame with The Beatles. During the peak of my obsession with the band, it offered a more tangible perspective on Lennon's life that I could not quite glean from reading the many books about his life. When Nowhere Boy came out a few years later, I was loath to watch it because I did not feel that Aaron Johnson resembled Lennon as much as McQuillan did. On another Beatle binge in 2018, I broke down and checked it out.

I would have to give In His Life another watch to compare the two properly, but given that the lowest-priced DVD on Amazon right now is close to $40, that probably is not going to happen any time soon! While the first movie placed more emphasis on the early music of The Beatles and their tours in Germany, Nowhere Boy is more about the family strife that shaped Lennon's character. Its focus on the relationship between Lennon and his mother, Julia, is more sexual in nature, sometimes blatantly so. We see how his Aunt Mimi pushes him away when he attempts to comfort her about the death of his uncle, Mimi's husband George, and can understand how he is yearning for a softer, more feminine influence in his life.

Nowhere Boy was adapted from the memoir that Lennon's sister wrote, entitled Imagine This: Growing Up With My Brother John Lennon. I have not yet read the book. I presume that the sexual aspect of the relationship between John and his mother in the movie is exaggerated, but cannot say for certain. It does present an interesting, thought-provoking look at Lennon's early feminine influences without completely spelling out what it is trying to say about the relationship between them, his creativity, and the way he treated women later in his life.

Julia

In the film, John's mother is portrayed by Anne-Marie Duff, who does a good job of portraying Julia's free spirit and bouts of intense moodiness. Under Mimi's care and strict rules, John's Uncle George engages his playful side and shares John's love of music. After George passes unexpectedly at the beginning of the film, it is not long before John starts going to see his mother in secret. It is not revealed right away why he has to sneak the visits to his own mother, although glimpses are given into a recurring dream from John's childhood that seems to be about his parents. Unless one has already read the books, they are left guessing about why John is in Mimi's care.

In most of the scenes, Julia is very "up," animated, talking, laughing, dancing to or playing music. Once when John attempts to see her, she ignores his knock at the door and stays in her room, whispering, "Go away." From what we see, John has done nothing to upset her or deserve that treatment, so we can only glean that perhaps she suffers from emotional instability. She does say later in the movie that she struggles with an illness, but that the doctors she has seen do not know what it is. The symptoms she describes sound much like that of bipolar disorder.

The first time John visits Julia, they go to Blackpool and end up at a diner, where "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats is playing on the jukebox. Julia dances suggestively and flirts with the men nearby, which is not a behavior you would expect from a mother getting to know her teenage son who has been estranged from her. Or maybe it is, since it gives you a better idea about why he has been estranged from her in the first place. John can only gawk shyly at his mother through it all, saying little.

"Do you know what rock 'n' roll is?" she asks John. When he shakes his head, she answers, "Sex." They had to throw this in for anyone not already picking up on the strong Oedipal overtone of the mother-son relationship, I suppose. In another scene, John is at Julia's house as they listen to records and she lays against him on the sofa; the scene then flashes to John receiving oral sex from a girl at his school.

Emotional Unavailability

When John's friend tells him he knows where Julia lives and can take him there, John asks, "What bus do we get?" His friend answers, "We don't. We walk." Then we see as comprehension flashes across his face, the look that says, "She lives within walking distance but has never visited me."

Julia has two girls and a partner, Bobby Dykins, at home. They seem like a happy family. She is vivacious and flirty when she goes to the beach with John. We can tell Bobby does not feel comfortable with John around. After Julia allows him to spend the night, Bobby convinces her to send him back to Mimi's "for the girls," also telling her that Mimi needs John. When Julia pushes him out, she does not explain this to John but simply lets him believe that she no longer wants him around. She goes from hot to cold and sways like this a couple of times through the film. In her flirtatious fashion, she goes as far as to tell John, "You're my dream," and subsequently freezes him out.

The theme of emotional unavailability is explored with other characters as well - Mimi's frigid response to John after the death of Uncle George, John's purely sexual relationships with girls, sex and music as an escape from feelings. In the recurring dream John has about his parents where he is a small boy, his mother is behind a locked door calling out to him, and an adult prevents him from answering her. The beautiful, supportive, creative connection John has with his mother is overshadowed by the forbidden.

This is something that many creatives could, perhaps, relate to, the reason we turn to artistic outlets for expressing ourselves. I believe the film got it right that John was a highly sensitive type at heart, but he shut this side of himself out over time after the adults in his life set that as the example or forced him to do so.

Conflict Between Sisters

The plot comes to a head when Julia hosts a party for John's sixteenth birthday, much to Mimi's chagrin. She feels her efforts to show John love on his birthday are wasted or do not mean as much to him as his mother's. The conflict between Mimi and Julia has been present but not expanded upon until this point. This is when we discover the memory behind John's recurring dream of his parents. Mimi tells him the full story about how, at five years old, he was forced to choose between Julia or his father, who was moving to New Zealand. Mimi explains why she "stole" him, if indeed one can refer to it as stealing when a close family member intervenes for a child's good in the presence of unstable parents. John listens tearfully, and Julia pleads with him not to shut her out.

The emotions portrayed here are not entirely believable, not because the acting isn't good, but because of our understanding from the rest of the film, the culture and times generally, that blatant displays of emotion in families were frowned upon. If a scene like this occurred in reality, I strongly doubt John was as open with his tears around Mimi, whose character in the film is very close to the truth as I understand it.

Life Ends and Begins Again

The movie ends just as John has written his first song, "Hello Little Girl," and Julia has died in an accident. John struggles to hold back tears while thinking of his mother as he, Paul, and George record "In Spite of All the Danger." He informs Mimi that the group is off to Hamburg for their first tour. The music scenes sound great and show things moving in a nice direction for the band, but by contrast, John's life outside the music is empty and sad. Mimi has grown a bit warmer toward him by the end of the film, although she retains her strict demeanor, reminding him to put on his glasses before he leaves her house. As always, John takes his glasses back off after he is out of her line of sight.

Appropriately, his song "Mother" plays as the end credits begin.

While I had my doubts at first glance, Aaron Johnson did a great job of subtly showing the sensitive interior hidden beneath the bad boy rocker-type that we understand Lennon to be at that age. All in all, this was an interesting look at John's life that had not been done previously.

© 2020 Holley Hyler

Comments

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on April 05, 2020:

Interesting review. Well presented.