Sally Potter explores the tempestuous bonds of female friendship and the brutal battle of self-discovery that is adolescence in the poignant and thought-provoking drama Ginger & Rosa. Elle Fanning and Alice Englert (daughter of filmmakers Jane Campion and Colin Englert) star as the titular pair of 17-year-olds who were born in London while the bombing of Hiroshima half a world away forever changed the landscape of warfare and made the easy annihilation of the human race a very real possibility.
With the threat of nuclear war always looming, this is no nostalgic traipse through the fashions and fads of the 1960s. Instead, Potter explores the politics of the time through the very personal story of these two girls who refuse to become their mothers. Ginger and Rosa decide themselves rebels—but jointly so—making themselves twins in the uniform of beatniks down to the jeans they've made skinny by wearing them in a shared bath and allowing them to shrink. With these rituals and scenes of them sharing cigarettes and experiments with religion and politics, Potter portrays both the fervent passion of their bond as well as the beginnings of divergent paths surfacing that could tear them apart.
Where Rosa seeks solace from her desperate circumstances through a belief in a Christian God and the dreams of true love, Ginger is drawn deeper into ban the bomb protests that give her an outlet for her mounting fears that her own world is ending as her parents fight more and more, and Rosa finds a game-changing new interest. Of course most teens feel or behave at times as if the world is ending, but by placing Ginger in the midst of the Cold War era, Potter gives credence to her concerns, respecting her plight both personal and political. Ginger is a girl and a political activist who sees the world coming apart around her, but fears she is powerless to stop it.
As she tries to discover herself amid who her pontificating pacifist father (Alessandro Nivola) urges her to be, who her bitter domesticated mother (Christina Hendricks) pushes her to be, and who her patient gay godfathers (Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall) and their militant American gal pal (Annette Bening) encourage her to be, she's engaged in a battle for identity that is specific in its details, but universal in its theme. Fanning, who was only 13 when the movie was shot, is flawless in her performance, offering a vulnerability that makes every reaction shot of her deeply affecting. The whole ensemble is incredible, and worthy of praise, but she and Englert deserve special credit for not only shouldering so much of the film with their understated yet impactful portrayals, but also creating on onscreen friendship that is so authentic that the threat of its dissolution is physically devastating. Seriously, I felt ill over it.
With the recurring discussion of shifting political and social mores, the film gives plenty to consider and offers a rare depiction of where women (politically active or otherwise) fit into the tapestry of emerging social revolt of the '60s. But Potter does so much more with the film than just deliver a message about personal meeting political. She shows with an incredible clarity and emotional honesty how being a teen girl feels, and in doing so has made Ginger & Rosa timeless.
Ginger & Rosa is now playing at the New York Film Festival.