A portrait of the artist as a young man

By Owen Gleiberman
Updated October 07, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

Nowhere Boy is a biopic about John Lennon’s very early days (long before the Beatles), and it’s a terrific film: insightful and moving, with rock & roll sequences that give you a tingle. It starts in 1955, when Lennon (Aaron Johnson) is just 15 and a slightly bratty Liverpool delinquent living with his aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas). Before long, two things will rock his world. First, he learns that his mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), lives just down the road, and he reconnects with her. She’s free-spirited and a real flirt, just like John, but she’s also a fragile, neurotic waif who was too immature to raise him. The second thing that happens is that he decides he wants to be Elvis Presley.

The power of Nowhere Boy is that, as directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, it captures how John Lennon’s deeply sordid family life toyed with his soul by not letting him know who he was. When he’s drawn to the bad-boy catharsis of rock & roll, it gives him more than an outlet—it gives him an identity, a role. (And that’s before he meets a certain eager fellow named Paul, late in the film.) At first, Aaron Johnson, from Kick-Ass, seems too morose to be John Lennon, but then the Lennon personality—the wit, the casual cruelty—emerges. By the end of Nowhere Boy, you’ll feel you know John Lennon better than you ever did. A-