This biopic about restless teen John Lennon will probably be referred to as “A Portrait of the Beatle as a Young Man,” but as directed by Sam Taylor-Wood “Nowhere Boy” exhibits little of the personal style you’d expect of an artist turned filmmaker, let alone the risk-taking inclinations of James Joyce. It’s a surprisingly conventional treatment of a kid with family problems who just happens to have a future ahead of him as a music icon and eventual martyr.

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t well-made and compelling, in an old-fashioned Douglas Sirkish way. In Sirk’s movies, of course, the suffering was usually endured by a woman; here it’s a boy. So perhaps the better comparison would be to James Dean’s two early films, “Rebel Without a Cause” and “East of Eden,” both similarly flamboyant studies of teen angst that, together with a tragic death, brought him artistic immortality of the sort Lennon’s much longer career and murder would endow him with. But Sirk’s overripe soap operas and Dean’s hyper-emotional pictures with Ray and Kazan all share a common element—they remain hugely enjoyable, even if they’ve dated somewhat. “Nowhere Boy” isn’t up to their standard, but it’s an enjoyable facsimile.

Aaron Johnson, who was the wannabe street hero of “Kick-Ass,” is solid if not overwhelming as young Lennon, a rambunctious schoolboy who lives with his stern Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and likable Uncle George (David Threlfall) until George suddenly drops dead one night. It’s not long after that John and his pal Pete (Josh Bolt) discover American rock ’n roll and become fans of Elvis and his less famous contemporaries. Lennon’s fascination with the music is stoked by his emotionally freewheeling birth mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), who had given him to Mimi when he was five and has been living with her boyfriend Bobby (David Morrissey) and their two daughters only streets away, never having made contact with him.

The rest of the film follows two plot threads. One has to do with the pull-and-tug conflict that develops between Mimi and Julia over the boy both have mothered, though in rather different ways, and his internal conflict over which of them he should now stay with. In the process of resolving this matter—not without many tears and much tragedy—the secret of Julia’s past and the truth about the decision to turn John over to Mimi’s care are revealed.

That domestic melodrama is conjoined with Lennon’s decision to become a rocker himself. The picture depicts his first attempt to form an ad hoc band, the Quarrymen, from school chums—which leads in turn to a meeting with a talented fifteen-year old named Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sanger). The chemistry between the two—though they sometimes have rough patches—helps the group achieve some local success before a sudden death brings the boys even closer as a result of a common experience of loss. The rest, as they say, is musical history, left to the viewer’s memory and imagination.

As a tale of a young man working through emotional trauma to the cusp of an incredible career, “Nowhere Boy” is effective enough, though much of its power comes from our outside knowledge of Lennon’s later astronomical pop success. There’s a strong element of hagiography at work, of course, but the attention to period detail in Alice Normington’s production design, Charmian Adams’s art direction, Barbara Herman-Skelding’s set decoration and Julian Day’s costumes helps make it easy to watch, especially as the film is lovingly shot in glowing widescreen images by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. (Some of the individual compositions could stand alone as museum-worthy photographs.)

And for the most part the cast do what’s asked of them quite well. Johnson makes a dynamic and sympathetic Lennon, even if he lacks the full degree of charisma the role demands, and though Sangster doesn’t resemble McCartney all that closely, he makes a fine foil to him. Scott Thomas certainly embodies the prim and proper Mimi to a T. Duff, on the other hand, is more erratic as Julia, though the character is herself that way.

Perhaps the occasional unsteadiness in the performances is due to Taylor-Wood, who on the evidence of this film has a painterly eye but seems less secure in dealing with actors. But notwithstanding his freshman stumbles, “Nowhere Man” works as a conventionally satisfying docu-drama about the difficult teen years of a musical legend. If only it could have been as unconventional as Lennon was.