Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Good cast, canny direction help NOWHERE BOY rise above standard-level bio-pic

Want to know how to tell if your bio-pic is firing on all cylinders? Remove the famous person whose bio it is from the equation. Would the movie work if, instead of being about the celebrity, it were simply the story of Joe Schmoe?  Would the tale hold you? Would the events on view matter much? Using that criteria, NOWHERE BOY, the John-Lennon-as-a-teen-ager movie directed by Ms Sam Taylor Wood and written by Matt Greenhalgh (from the memoir by Julia Baird) would rate, I think, especially high marks. The fact that it's Lennon's story will of course draw most fans to the film, but they'll stay because the events and characters on screen are presented with strength, intelligence, feeling -- and life. This is one vivid movie.

As Ms Taylor-Wood's initial full-length film, Nowhere Boy would seem to be especially susceptible to first-film-itis: tossing in everything that's on the director's mind (and too much of it), prizing flashy visuals above clear content, and hitting the salient points with more strength than subtlety. (Taylor-Wood -- shown at left -- might be accused of the latter fault to some extent, but even here, she manages to hold back more often than not.) The lady is no spring chicken; she's mature woman who's come into her own an as artist -- in art and photography -- some time back. (See the excellent short piece about her in this week's New York magazine.) This may account for much of the film's success, as well as for its sidestepping some of the potholes of first-filmdom.

As noted above, imagining the removal of celebrity from a celebrity biopic necessitates having a strong story and theme. The tale told in Nowhere Boy involves a teenager who earlier suffered the loss of both parents, and who will soon lose an important surrogate and then suddenly discover that one of these personages has not been lost at all.

Interestingly enough, music, which seems to be the young man's passion, acts as much as a distraction from some of his sorrows -- past, present and future -- as it does the film's raison d'être. Music is always present but it never overpowers the story or its very lively characters. Nor do the excellent art direction and set design, which capture mid1950s Britain and the Liverpool area quite well (to the eyes of this American, at least).  Nowhere Boy lasts but 98 minutes, a short running time for a film about one of the world's most gushed-over celebs (more so perhaps even after his death). Yet there's a modesty about this movie that becomes it well.

What becomes it most, however, is its remarkable cast.  In its lead actor (Aaron Johnson -- shown in the  photos above, and at bottom -- who makes more than good on the promise he offered in Kick-Ass), the movie has a performer who's a lot better looking than Lennon ever was but still manages to resemble the musician enough at odd times to carry off the role. More important, Johnson conveys a keen intelligence under his increasing swagger and anger, and so is able to indicate below-the-surface agitation particularly well. Kristin Scott Thomas (below, in her second bulls-eye performance in as many weeks: click here for the first) plays Lennon's seemingly cold aunt Mimi to perfection. She let us observe those little changes that occur as a frozen heart begins to thaw.

It's Anne-Maire Duff (below, as Lennon's late-appearing birth mother Julia) however, who clinches the deal. Ms Duff gives such a generous, warts-and-all performance that she actually walks away with the movie. This is as it should be, for it is her character who commands not just the screen but the very life -- reality and fantasy -- of the Lennon character, once he understands, not simply the identity of this woman, but what this might now mean to him.

Supporting roles are aced by a bevy of fine performers, older and younger. The always-solid David Morrissey (this guy was even good in Basic Instinct 2) is terrific as Julia's new man, torn between his own desires and his sense of what is right and appropriate, while David Threlfall, with relatively short screen time, registers warmly and strongly as Lennon's uncle George. Good performances from the younger set include those of Thomas Brodie Sangster, (who, in his incipient career, has already run the gamut -- playing young Hitler in a TV movie and now the young Paul McCartney!), Josh Bolt as friend Pete, and in his screen debut, Sam Bell as the young George Harrison.

Nowhere Boy, from The Weinstein Company, opens Friday, October 8, at (of all places) Film Forum.  This is certainly that storied house's most "mainstream" theatrical debut in ages.  One imagines that the film will soon be appearing elsewhere around the country, though I have not yet been able to determine exactly where....

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