The problem with many biopics is that sometimes you can't see beyond the icon rendered onscreen; not so with Nowhere Boy, director Sam Taylor-Wood's eloquent retelling of Lennon's teen years. There are plenty of cues, of course, to remind viewers that this John Lennon is the iconic musician who founded the Beatles. The characteristic impishness, the swagger, the intensity when he plays guitar -- it's all there. When we discover how fraught his relationship was with his mother, we understand the distress in his song "Julia." (It's his mother's name.) Even the movie's title encapsulates what he may have felt -- lost between two women who loved him and shared the responsibility of raising him, with no father in sight. But Taylor-Wood manages to make viewers forget about the legend and, in turn, care about the person Lennon was before he became what he did.
Johnson is brilliant as Lennon. Though not a facsimile, physically, there's enough of a resemblance in both looks and spirit to make it work. Scott Thomas gives us a layered Mimi, both foreboding and loving. And Duff's Julia is simultaneously maddeningly fragile and winningly likeable. There isn't much direct mention of the Beatles here; in fact, none at all, save for an oblique reference that tantalizes because we know how big the group eventually becomes. We see Paul, Ringo, and George, but not much. In fact, we could've spent more time with them. And it would have been nice to get more material on Lennon's father, too. Still, this journey takes you far from nowhere, right to the heart of a legend in the making.