PARK CITY, Utah --There is no more mythologized figure in the history of pop culture than John Lennon, unless it's Lennon's teenage idol, Elvis Presley. So I wasn't even sure I wanted to bother with the United States premiere of British artist-turned-filmmaker Sam Taylor-Wood's "Nowhere Boy," a retelling of Lennon's late teen years in Liverpool, just before the Beatles. I'm glad I did. Aaron Johnson's hulking, almost loutish performance as the angry young Liverpudlian may displease some Lennon-worshipers, but the movie is an elegantly rendered surprise, Rather than a rock 'n' roll biopic, this is a classic British family melodrama, anchored by one of the subtlest, richest roles in Kristin Scott Thomas' impressive career.
Johnson plays the 17-year-old Lennon as a boiling pit of anger and yearning. He's almost desperate for approval and affection (and convinced of his own genius) but covers that most of the time with a mask of sardonic, often cutting humor. "Why didn't God make me Elvis?" he jokes to his party-girl mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). "I'll get the bastard back for that." Her answer -- "He was saving you for John Lennon!" -- reads on the page too much like movie dialogue, but Duff pulls it off. Matt Greenhalgh's adept and concise screenplay, based on a memoir by Lennon's half-sister, Julia Baird, generally avoids such pseudo-prophetic moments.
If this Lennon seems like an arrogant little shit, sometimes irresistible but often insufferable, Johnson and the filmmakers have based that characterization largely on Lennon's own reflections, particularly in post-Beatles interviews. More broadly, this Lennon is an almost archetypal angry young man or rebel schoolboy of British Isles fiction and drama, a Liverpool cousin of Stephen Dedalus, dreaming of escape from his strangled, provincial environment.
But as I mentioned earlier, "Nowhere Boy" isn't just about aspiring rock god John Lennon, and how he meets a couple of guitar-playing schoolmates named Paul (Thomas Sangster) and George (Sam Bell) and starts a skiffle band called the Quarrymen. Those things happen in the film, and Sangster is wonderful in limited screen time, playing 15-year-old McCartney as an angel-faced, serious-minded prodigy. "You don't seem much like a rock 'n' roll guy," John taunts him. "Why?" asks Paul. "Because I don't run around smashing things up and acting like a dick?"
That stuff is essentially context for the film's central drama, the three-way, push-pull relationship between John, his damaged and flighty mother, and his redoubtable Aunt Mimi (Scott Thomas), who raised John after both his parents abandoned him at age 5. Mimi is a fortress of middle-class English propriety against the heavily Irish, heavily working-class landscape of Liverpool. She refuses to grieve after her beloved husband dies ("It's just the two of us now, so let's get on with it," she tells John), runs a rigorous household of proper teatimes and dinnertimes and is of course predictably suspicious of John's rock 'n' roll dreams.
But "Nowhere Boy" is less about a boy's first steps toward stardom than his first steps toward emotional maturity, and those lessons are all provided by Mimi, not by John's irresistible, unstable and profoundly unreliable mother. Julia takes him on daytrips to Blackpool, dances with him to Screamin' Jay Hawkins records and showers him with borderline-inappropriate affection, but Mimi put in the hard work of preparing a brilliant, deeply wounded child for the heavy lifting of manhood. Scott Thomas delivers a quiet but ferocious performance as a woman quietly at war with herself, who begins to realize that her vision of Liverpool respectability may not fit the remarkable young man she has raised.
In a Sundance lineup that's light on overtly commercial films, "Nowhere Boy" feels like a potential hit. A packed house of civilians and celebrities -- Elton John was on hand -- gave it a long, rousing ovation, and then sat reverently while Taylor-Wood delivered droll anecdotes her phone conversations with Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono, in which both gave their blessings to the project. (Despite the ambiguous monicker, Taylor-Wood is yet another female director in a breakout year for women at Sundance. Lest I neglect the tabloid details: She and Aaron Johnson, the film's star, are a couple. She's 42; he's 19.) "I'd be in the supermarket and, 'Oh my God, it's Paul -- Sir Paul! -- on the phone. Could everybody in here please be quiet?' He'd just give me some little tidbit, about John or about Mimi, and then he'd hang up."