Adolescence is skin deep invincibility. You find yourself clamped to the handlebars of a motorcycle with the throttle jammed open, hurtling towards adulthood, sex, money, furniture and everything in between. You can’t turn, you can’t stop and if you slow down the only thing that will happen is every other driver will laugh at you.
Because make no mistake you’re not alone. You’re trapped in a flock of people in exactly the same situation with exactly as little control as you. Some of them will be friends for life, others will be people you would happily see dead or maimed or worse. Some will be both. All of them are as frightened as you, as out of control as you and all of them, without exception are looking for something to make them feel better. The fastest way to do that is, of course, to laugh at the other people in the race, the ones who are slower, the ones who are frightened, the ones who are different.
You can’t stop, you can’t turn around and you can’t get off. So you change your focus, you change your definition of what control is, you change yourself. Survival becomes all about totems, about objects and styles and culture that have tremendous, vital significance for you. For one friend of mine, that came through classic horror and Goth make up, for another it was a saxophone and an East German army jacket. For me, at first, it was books, then a leather jacket, then film. You survive however you can, whether that’s through playing the sax, learning how to draw Egyptian eye makeup or knowing about a film three months before your friends do. The icons and totems change and fall away but the need for them, to make something about your life your own never does and often they define you as much by their absence as their presence.
It’s absence and what happens when you become aware of it that lies at the heart of Nowhere Boy. The story of John Lennon’s teenage years, adapted from the book by his sister, it follows the future Beatle from the loss of his uncle through to his departure for Hamburg with the band that would become the Beatles. From an absence to a departure, it follows Lennon with unrelenting, unblinking intensity through the worst, and arguably most important, years of his life.
Adolescence sits in the no man’s land between confidence and terror and the film shows us both those extremes in the first ten minutes. Lennon begins the film happy, relaxed and innocent as his Uncle gives him his first harmonica lesson. This is Lennon unfettered but also Lennon undefined, a happy, cheerful, charming young man whose life comes to a crashing halt when his Uncle dies. In one of the film’s most affecting moments, he breaks down in front of his aunt the day after his Uncle dies. She firmly, but not unkindly, tells him off, says it’s just the two of them now and hands him a tea towel. Lennon stares at her for a moment, then begins to dry the dishes. A widow and a child, united by the one thing they won’t talk about, by a smiling Banquo with a harmonica in his top pocket.
The death of his Uncle, the absence in his life, wakes Lennon up, sacrifices his innocence for his awareness. He becomes aware of the odd nature of his life, of the fact that he lives with his aunt even though his mother is still alive. His need to find answers, to discover the truth behind that arrangement in turn leads to him becoming aware of his priorities; family before school, his future before everything else. Trapped, it seems, in a house with an aunt that doesn’t love him near a mother that doesn’t want him, Lennon can rely on one person; himself. Therefore, it only makes sense he make himself a success because clearly no one else will.
This combination of selfishness and confidence, of absolute determination and complete lack of focus is what drives Lennon. He wants something desperately and at first he’s convinced it’s a relationship with his mother. The scenes between Lennon and his mother Julia are arguably where the film is at its strongest, the two playing off one another in a way that’s both sweet and unsettling. Ann-Marie Duff plays Julia as a desperately cheerful, unfettered woman who runs headlong at her teenage son with a combination of joy and crippling guilt. There’s an air of courtship, of romance to the scenes, of two people trying desperately to fit eighteen years of relationship into a few weeks. The scenes, and the characters, feel fragile, hysteria always present just beneath Julia’s laughter, rage beneath John’s wry smile. These are two damaged people trying desperately to fix themselves through the other’s company and they never quite manage it.
A lesser film would have concluded with the inevitable apocalyptic argument but here that arrives not longer after the mid point. Lennon discovers the truth about his past, about the horrific choice he was asked to make between his mother and his father and he does exactly what anyone would in that situation; he explodes, raging at the people around him, at the world he’s trapped in, at the fact that God chose James Dean to be James Dean instead of him. This is Lennon unfettered, Johnson nailing the Beatles’ savage combination of fury, humour and blistering intellect.
For all his bluster though, Lennon finds a measure of peace. The film tilts around this confrontation, the view of each character changing as we learn about the complex relationship between his mother and aunt, and the love they both have for him. Kristin Scott-Thomas’ Aunt Mimi is still strict but there’s a compassion to it, a tempering of both her emotions and John’s as she takes gradual steps towards reconciling with her sister. There’s something uniquely English about the way the two women make up, neither saying anything yet both working to find common ground and where Johnson and Duff are emotive and expressive, Scott-Thomas is the quiet, reticent emotional core of the scene and the film.
Lennon’s perspective, and the audience’s view of him, also change at this point. A young man who has been defined by absence, of a father, a mother, school, affection, is suddenly defined by the thing he most wants; attention and through that, love. He realises that his mother wasn’t what he was looking for, that what he really needs is to define himself on his own terms. The rock star attitude becomes tempered with real ability, real dedication. By the time we see the Quarrymen play their first gig, it’s clear that Lennon has changed his totems, swapping the absence of a conventional family for the swagger and theatricality, the attention and crucially, adulation, of a performer.
Even this, though, isn’t enough and one of the film’s best scenes comes after the gig as Lennon is introduced to a young Paul McCartney. The casting of Thomas Sangster, who Johnson worked with before on the under rated Feather Boy for the BBC, is something close to genius. The two have an an instant bond, part adversarial, part affectionate, one all rock and roll bluster, the other all quiet, sad focus. McCartney is broken in a unique and complementary way to Lennon, losing his mother to cancer where Lennon lost his father to the Merchant Navy and together the two form begin to form something like a whole. Lennon has the swagger and the raw talent, McCartney has the focus and the patience to teach him and the tempering effect he has on Lennon is revelatory, especially on Lennon himself. For the first time he sees himself from another persepective, the slight, quiet McCartney slipping past his size and bluster to reveal not only what he wants but how to get there. For the first time, Lennon realises that a good look, an attitude and his own talent aren’t enough, that he not only needs a band, but needs to be challenged. He’s still brash and over-confidence but for the first time Lennon’s able to see not only where he’s going but also that he can’t get there alone.
Then Julia dies. In the cruellest possible way, at the cruellest possible location and time. Lennon is defined by absence once again, and, once again, is unfettered. The confident, Elvis-quiffed almost rock star is revealed to be just another totem, just another icon clutched in the hands of a terrified, angry boy who can’t believe he’s here, again. The rage that’s never far from the surface bubbles over into violence and Johnson shows us it all, shows us that everything up to now has been a front, that Lennon’s still broken, still alone.
But no longer alone. The hair, the attitude, the anger all fall away as we see Lennon realise that he’s part of something larger than himself now, that he’s defined by the presence of his band more than the absence of his family. It’s still not right, it still causes him almost incalculable pain but for the first time he’s bigger than it, stronger than it. For the first time it’s something he can define and understand instead of something that defines him.
Nowhere Boy is a film about how we define ourselves and how we’re defined, about what we choose and what’s forced upon us. It’s a film about the events that defined a man who helped define generations of music and musicians. Most of all though , it’s a film about the crucible of adolescence, the glory and the terror of realising that you’re clamped to the motorcycle but you’re not the only one. It’s rarely fair, it’s never easy but none of us go through it alone and sometimes that’s enough.