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Nowhere Boy gets back to where John Lennon once belonged

Kristin Scott Thomas carries Sam Taylor-Wood's feature film debut

An interviewer once asked John Lennon if he was a genius, and Lennon replied, "Yes. If there is such a thing as a genius, then I am one."

In the biopic Nowhere Boy, a disapproving schoolteacher questions the future of classroom cutup John Lennon (Aaron Johnson), who quips, "There's nowhere for the geniuses." Nowhere Boy accepts John's prodigious talent as a given, but suggests that genius doesn't emerge fully formed into the world. Instead, it requires conflict and friction, like the pressures that convert coal into diamonds (with or without Lucy in the sky).

Set in the late 1950s, Nowhere Boy presents John as a rebellious child of the placid Liverpudlian suburbs. Generally, John's home resembles the scrubbed, middle-class neighborhoods of last year's An Education, a much more pleasant home than the dismal, post-World War II England depicted in the kitchen-sink dramas of the era. In an on-the-nose touch, the opening credits blast Jerry Lee Lewis' "Wild One" as John romps in the streets, comes onto his female classmates, and generally thumbs his nose at propriety.

John was raised by his aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and uncle George (David Threlfall), the latter of whom gave John his first harmonica and indulges his cheeky humor. George dies an untimely death, and at his funeral John glimpses Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), the vivacious redhead who happens to be his absentee mother. John discovers his mother lives within walking distance, and when he shows up on her doorstep, the initially shocked Julia welcomes him with open arms.

Nowhere Boy suggests that free-spirited Julia was Lennon's first inspiration and muse. At a Blackpool café, she plays "Rocket 88" on a jukebox, cadges a light from an onlooker, and teaches John an appreciation of rock 'n' roll. "Know what it means? ... Sex," she informs him, with a heat and reflexive flirtatiousness that seems almost Oedipal. Later, John seeks approval by presenting her with a 45 of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You." As they listen to the funky riff, a spell seems to gather between them. Nowhere Boy conveys the mystique that vinyl records possessed in the era before music migrated to the Internet.

Dreams and half-memories of an anguished childhood haunt John — each revelation about why his mother gave him up leads to further questions. (Not all of these are resolved by the film's end.) He tends to shuttle between the two sisters, with Mimi offering stability but harsh discipline, while Julia cultivates an atmosphere of both creativity and mood swings. Julia also lives with two small daughters and a disapproving boyfriend, played by the excellent David Morrissey, who gets little to do but glower at John. Even if you didn't know whom John would grow up to be, the maternal love triangle provides an intriguing story.

Anguished by the tug-of-war between the sisters, John finds an outlet in music and tries to fashion himself as another Elvis (although Aaron Johnson's pompadour is more Flock of Seagulls at times). In a clever montage, John painstakingly practices with Julia's banjo while his mother and half-sisters move around the room in fast-forward. Although the musical performances sound consistent with the young Lennon's recordings, the lip-synching isn't convincing.

Nowhere Boy doesn't shy away from rock-movie clichés. A young stranger nods thoughtfully along to the first performance of John's "skiffle band," the Quarrymen, and who should the boyish dandy be but Paul McCartney. Thomas Brodie Sangster (who happens to be the voice of Ferb on "Phineas & Ferb") looks more like Freddie Highmore than the Cute Beatle. Paul's guitar proficiency puts Lennon and his amateur bandmates to shame. John points out that Paul doesn't seem like the rock 'n' roll sort, and Paul replies, "You mean, 'cause I don't go around smashin' stuff up and acting like dick?"

The audience appreciates that Paul's musical focus and responsible conduct provides a vital balance to John's brash showmanship, knowing it will lead to one of rock music's most productive partnerships, at least for a decade. Nowhere Boy emphasizes the family tensions, however, and Johnson and Duff's performances tend toward shrillness during the more histrionic scenes. Kick-Ass star Johnson doesn't look much like Lennon, with lips practically pillowy in comparison, but he captures the late Beatle's mischievous insolence. (Backbeat's Ian Hart may be the definitive big-screen Lennon, so far.)

Photographer Sam Taylor-Wood, who riffed on Lennon's photographic image in projects such as "October 26, 1993," makes her feature film debut with Nowhere Boy. At times, the film's emotional tone feels uncertain. Thankfully, Thomas provides a vital counterbalance as the severe but needy Mimi. The contained feelings she signals through her posture prove more compelling than Duff's noisier, externalized performance. If Nowhere Boy's cast were a band, Johnson and Duff might get the attention, but Thomas, like a tight rhythm section, would hold the music together.