Though Ginger & Rosa is arguably Sally Potter's best work to date, it's certainly the English filmmaker's most accessible. But that's not to diminish her past experimental, more iconoclastic movies. Her previous work has clearly enriched this finely observed and affecting tale about two teenage girls coming of age in early-1960s Britain. Like Orlando, her adaptation of Virginia Woolf's centuries-spanning novel which established her name internationally 20 years ago, there's a strong female protagonist through whose POV the movie unfolds. We sense a deep personal involvement in the narrative, though not to the autobiographical extent of Potter's The Tango Lesson, in which the director played herself. The formalist challenges she took on in the fashionista thriller Rage—comprised almost entirely of confessional close-ups—seem to have resulted in the huge emotional payoffs in the intimate scenes in the current film.
Ginger & Rosa opens with stock footage of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. The existence of the bomb hangs over movie, which is set in 1962 London. The Cold War has escalated and the Cuban Missile Crisis is a palpable threat. Specifically, it's young Ginger (Elle Fanning) who's most affected by the prospect of a nuclear holocaust, spending most her time with Rosa (Alice Englert), her best friend from childhood. The two girls share an extremely close bond. Rosa is the wilder one of the two, leading the way when it comes to making out with boys and smoking cigarettes, while Ginger writes poetry and becomes involved with the anti-nuclear activism of the day. In quick elliptical scenes, expertly edited by Anders Refn, Potter deftly captures the close bonds between girls with telling details that also nail the period just prior to the flower-children era: Ginger and Rosa giggling as they soak in a tub to shrink their jeans, straightening their hair with an iron, dressing up in the current beatnik fashion. The two girls were born on the same day and seem to share their own secret language. But we also get to see their growing differences, and their friendship is put to the test when Ginger's pacifist intellectual father allows Rosa's fascination with him take an inappropriate turn, pushing both girls into premature adulthood.
If Potter's previous movies have focused on style and structure, the true strength of Ginger & Rosa lies is in its performances. Holding the emotional center of the movie, Fanning is breathtaking, her face alone speaking volumes during many unflinching close-ups. Newcomer Englert, director Jane Campion's daughter, is equally assured. Alessandro Nivola, as Ginger's cool but self-centered father, is the other standout, playing a character with whom the audience will readily identify on an intellectual level, but who's also the person who causes the most damage. He says all the right things, in the best liberal sense, and yet he will cross a moral and ethical line that's inexcusable. Providing support in somewhat underwritten roles are Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt, playing a gay couple, and Annette Benning, as their activist friend, all three functioning as Ginger's surrogate parents.
Potter has said that she was interested in the "grand passion of teenage friendships." She has certainly succeeded in Ginger & Rosa in capturing the extremes of adolescence, the period in these two girls lives where God, politics, and jeans are discussed with equal intensity. She's also recreated an era less familiar in the movies than the now-clichéd Swinging '60s. But it's the lovingly detailed portrait of a female teenage friendship that should strike a chord with audiences.
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