Authentic girls’ voices highlight coming-of-age drama ‘Ginger & Rosa’
Just in time for the end of Women’s History Month comes Sally Potter’s thoughtful and involving Ginger & Rosa. Very much a “woman’s movie,” with its emotional, relationship-driven storyline, it also has a distinct historical setting—London in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis—as the backdrop before which its two teenage protagonists struggle to come of age. And while the plot may seem a bit far-fetched at times, there’s something so touching about the authenticity of these young female voices and their nameless, formless yearning that will speak to anyone who has ever been a 17-year-old girl.
Potter is a highly original filmmaker who can be extremely great (her first feature was the brilliant Orlando) or pretty awful (her experimental Tango Lesson and Yes both self-destructed). With Ginger & Rosa, she is mostly great in getting to the heart of a simple, but potent story about teenage girlfriends, mothers and daughters, and fathers and daughters, and all the ways those delicate balances can be tipped, one way or another, during the perilous dance of growing up.
Ginger (the remarkable Elle Fanning) and Rosa (an affecting Alice Englert) have been best friends since their mothers gave birth to them at the same time in the same London hospital. They practice kissing and smoking together, shrink their jeans sitting in the same bathtub, make out with the occasional, anonymous boy, and do wild-girl things like hitchhike to the seaside for a day of illicit hanging out. The unsupervised Rosa (her single mom cleans houses) is more advanced; aspiring poet Ginger gets more friction at home from her frustrated, stay-at-home mom, Natalie (Christina Hendricks), and her professor dad, Roland (Alessandro Nivola), who insists his daughter call him by his first name.
Increasingly dire news broadcasts from the standoff over Russian missiles in Cuba convinces Ginger the end is near, and the girls join a ban-the-bomb protest group. (“That’s my girl,” crows Roland, who, we learn, was jailed as a conscientious objector during the war.) She’s also supported by her beloved uncle, Mark (Timothy Spall), and his intimate American friend, “Mark 2” (Oliver Platt), whose relation, poet-activist Bella (a succinct cameo by Annette Bening) is also in London.
Meanwhile, her fractious parents separate over Roland’s dalliances with his female students, and Ginger decides to go live with her dad. So she has an uncomfortable ringside seat for the unfolding infatuation between Roland and precocious Rosa—even as the protest marches become more volatile and dangerous.
The stage is set for a drama of Greek, if not Biblical, proportions. Yes, we might question some choices made by the feckless Roland (especially with his daughter living in the house). But Potter also provides insight into his character, effectively exploring his delusional selfishness, his attempt to excuse his betrayals by lumping domestic morality into the kind of “tyranny” he has always fought against.
Potter is always interested in metaphor and symbolism in the construction of her stories, and here, the Cuban Missile Crisis functions more as metaphor than a precise historical moment. For this reason, perhaps, the film is a little off in terms of the look and fashions of the era. In 1962, girls were still wearing bouffants and beehives. Long, loose hair, like these girls have (and the phenomenon of ironing it, as Ginger does) wouldn’t be popular for another three or four years. And the curly mop and facial hair worn by the leader of the activist group Ginger has a crush on is way too 1968 for the era—even for an art student.
However, invoking the Cuban Missile Crisis as a metaphor for the end of the world fits nicely into Potter’s storytelling scheme, as does the snippet of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” Ginger reads to herself at a critical moment in the plot. (“This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang, with a whimper.”) In fact, Ginger’s world is about to end—the world of childhood, innocence, and absolute trust. It will end, as it always must, in the uneasy transition into adulthood. How Ginger chooses to navigate and survive this transition gives the film its stubborn heart.
GINGER & ROSA
★★★ (out of four)
With Elle Fanning, Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendricks, and Alice Englert.
Written and directed by Sally Potter. An A24 release. Rated PG-13. 90 minutes.