For those who attended SBIFF’s “Virtuosos” evening this year, they would have seen Elle Fanning, younger sister of Dakota, receiving an award for her breakout role in Sally Potter’s “Ginger & Rosa.” This was an odd choice among many, as nobody save those in the UK and the film festival circuit had seen it. (And those who did see the clip at that evening at the Arlington … forget everything! It was a spoiler!!)
So now it has come to town and the film is accomplished, but with some problems. Sally Potter’s more experimental side – starting with her early, hard-to-see work and her career making “Orlando” – has been set aside for this more personal tale, drawn from her memories of growing up a radical at the birth of the nuclear protest movement.
The very real threat of nuclear holocaust in 1962 provides the backdrop to this coming-of-age tale, equated with all the anxiety and uncertainty of growing up. Ginger (Elle Fanning) at one emotional high point says “I’m going to explode!” (She, like the world, doesn’t).
But she is in turmoil. She has a best friend, Rosa (Alice Englert), and they show their love by wearing similar clothes, chasing after boys, learning to smoke, and general teen stuff. They both feel estranged from their parents, Rosa more so. Her father has upped and left and her mother (Jodhi May) works a menial dead-end job.
Ginger’s anger is more existential. Her mother Natalie (Christina Hendricks) has given up her ambitions as an artist and is trying to be the good housekeeper while her father, who even Ginger calls by his first name Roland (Alessandro Nivola), is a pacifist who spent World War II in prison for his beliefs. He’s also a free-thinker who has taught Ginger not to listen to authority and believes that one day, if we all just do our own thing, nobody will criticize him for sleeping with his students.
There’s also a Greek chorus of family friends – gay couple Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt and their American friend Bella (Annette Benning), who help Ginger along the way. The best moments for me in this film were the finely observed way in which adults and teens both use each other to further their own agendas, whether it is to become adult faster and be taken seriously or to create a younger version of the self.
While Ginger gets swept up into the nascent protest movement CND – long a mainstay of British politics – Rosa wants a real romance, and if you’re reading carefully you’ll figure out where she finds one.
Elle Fanning does a good job centering the film, taking on the amazing task of playing an emotionally complex 17-year-old when she was only 13 (and American). But there’s so little of Rosa and of their relationship (save for an opening montage that establishes their omgbff status) in the film that when it inexorably breaks down, it doesn’t hold much weight. Instead there’s beauty to be found elsewhere, especially in Robbie Ryan’s cinematography (he’s worked previously with Andrea Arnold) and a fine selection of beatnik music, including Dave Brubeck and Thelonious Monk, which Ginger spins on her portable record player. If the world is going to blow up, I’d like to be listening to Take Five.
‘Ginger and Rosa’
Starring: Elle Fanning, Alice Englert, Christina Hendricks, Alessandro Nivola
Length: 90 mins.
Rating: PG-13 for mature disturbing thematic material involving teen choices around sexuality, drinking, smoking, and for language
Playing at: Paseo Nuevo