Ginger & Rosa bursts with youthful rebellion

Sally Potter's latest film explores young women, and a world, on the verge of exploding in 1960s London

Private dramas unfold against the backdrop of broader historical terrors in Sally Potter's absorbing coming-of-age drama Ginger & Rosa, set in London in 1962 as fears of nuclear war loom. For Ginger (Elle Fanning), the more central of the two eponymous teenage protagonists, the world — on both the micro and macro levels — is about to burst.

Potter too is breaking out with a new, straightforward style. Best-known for her lush 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf's time-traveling novel Orlando, the filmmaker here forgoes her earlier unconventional predilections for a simple, direct narrative.

The connection between nuclear bombs and nuclear families is made quite literal in the film's prologue: Opening with archival footage of an atomic mushroom cloud, the movie cuts to the birth of the title characters by teenage mothers on adjacent hospital cots, in the same year as the bombing of Hiroshima. Best friends since they were seconds old, Ginger and Rosa (Alice Englert) have, 17 years later, blossomed into highly self-dramatizing adolescents. Ginger name-drops Simone de Beauvoir and plans to be a poet. Rosa favors more carnal pleasures, such as snogging with boys. Their responses to the increasingly terrifying radio broadcasts about nuclear buildup also reflect their diverging beliefs: Ginger thinks they should protest; Rosa suggests they pray.

Alice Englert (left) and Elle Fanning are teenagers threatened by missiles and moms
A24
Alice Englert (left) and Elle Fanning are teenagers threatened by missiles and moms

Despite their differences, the two girls share an insoluble bond forged by their disdain of their mothers. "Mothers are pathetic. They don't believe in anything," sneers Rosa, whose single mum, Anoushka (Jodhi May), cleans houses to support her large brood. Ginger's ma, Natalie (Christina Hendricks), is often destabilized by the comings and goings of her writer-intellectual husband, Roland (Alessandro Nivola). Overweening and self-righteous, he's both something of a role model for daughter Ginger and her frequent co-conspirator in humiliating Natalie.

Potter keenly understands the most psychically violent stage of an adolescent girl's development: her struggle to individuate from her mother. The ferocity of this love-hate dynamic is underscored even further by Fanning's devastating performance. Fanning, who turns 15 next month, deepens her bright, anxious character with reserves of empathy — even, eventually, toward her eternal nemesis.

Soon, however, a scandalous betrayal by Roland and Rosa only heightens Ginger's fears about the globe's imminent destruction.

The film's climactic scene, which brings together all the characters, also suffers from clumsy pacing and blocking. Yet in its closing minutes Potter restores the calmer, observational tone and mood, providing a lovely summation of its main character's age-appropriate contradictions. Sitting silently, Ginger reflects, somewhat grandiosely, on what awaits her as an adult in a poem about the future — verse that is rendered in the simple rhyming scheme of a child.

 
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