Growing up is hard. But if Sally Potter’s new film, Ginger & Rosa, is any indication, it’s a heck of a lot more difficult when the world is under the constant and direct threat of nuclear annihilation. Set in London in the early 1960s, the film tells the story of a teenage girl, Ginger (Elle Fanning), who becomes obsessed with the media’s coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Reverent to her own rebellious father (Alessandro Nivola) and disdainful of her mother, whom she sees as apathetic and weak (Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks), Ginger becomes a budding activist alongside her best friend, Rosa (Alice Englert).
Of course, Ginger & Rosa wouldn’t be a proper coming-of-age tale without a bit of personal turmoil and relationship drama, and Potter isn’t afraid to crank up the melodrama towards the end of the film. Given the deliberate pacing and careful attention to mood that Potter builds throughout, some viewers may be left rolling their eyes at the surprisingly conventional turns the plot takes at the climax. Yet for the most part the film is quite restrained, and the change of pace feels more like a deliberate attempt to disorient the viewer rather than a cop-out ending. Throughout the movie, we see the minor jabs and injustices that Ginger experiences, and rather than getting mad or making quips, she internalizes it all. (At one point, her father even praises her for not being a “moaner” like her mother.) By the time the last third of the film rolls around, the betrayals swell, and it all comes to a head with the force of… well, a bomb, I suppose.
Sure, some of the symbolism and narrative parallels might be a bit heavy-handed. Potter’s style is not particular subtle, combining a bombastic score with images of relative inaction throughout and offering numerous extreme close-ups in particularly dramatic moments. But she also doesn’t let her flair for drama overwhelm the modest, heartfelt story.
Part of the credit also goes to Fanning, who was just 13 when Ginger & Rosa was filmed. It’s an extremely introverted performance for much of the film, but she subtly conveys the thought process of her character without it ever feeling forced. And when Fanning does get showier moments later on, she proves equally magnetic.
Though Ginger & Rosa doesn’t cover a lot of new territory, it does offer some twists on the conventional coming-of-age story (for example, there is no traditional love interest for Ginger’s character) and takes a more serious approach to adolescence than many other movies with young characters. In some ways, Ginger & Rosa is firmly rooted in its time period. But even if the fashion and some of the political focus has shifted since the 1960s, there’s a timeless humanity to the film that transcends the decades. MMM½