The fundamental coming-of-age conflict facing the troubled teen played by Elle Fanning in Sally Potter’s “Ginger and Rosa” may look familiar, but the director brings a raw energy to the material that deepens its possibilities. Set at the height of nuclear paranoia in early-Sixties London, Potter’s script has a lot to say about the progressive attitudes of its chosen era by cleverly analogizing them to the expanding horizons of a restless adolescent mind. A viscerally charged movie that foregrounds surface tensions and gripping performances, “Ginger and Rosa” is the filmmaker’s most accessible and technically surefooted work to date.
A return to conventional narrative after the digressions of her two previous outings, “Rage” and “Yes,” Potter’s seventh feature is impressively economical in its design. The opening montage establishes the movie’s entire scope in a matter of minutes: From fleeting images of the Hiroshima bombing, Potter shifts to a London hospital for an amusing dual birth scene in which a pair of young women hold hands as they jointly bring into the world the two characters of the movie’s title.
Before a word is spoken, we see how the two families remain close as Ginger (Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) grow up side by side. Years flash by in a series of swift images set to smooth jazz, a delectable combination of sights and sounds that neatly establishes the two families’ dynamics while the initial wartime image points to the broader themes they represent. Over time, Ginger will grow fearful of a looming nuclear threat, hesitant to admit that her real security fears lie with the stability of her family and friends — not to mention herself.
At first Potter revels in the carefree transition into rambunctious youth that the girls celebrate together. With a steady application of jump cuts and a magnificently expressionistic color palette, “Ginger and Rosa” observes the two best friends enjoying a world devoid of rules. Their fun times face a disapproving shadow cast by Ginger’s solemn mother Natalie (Christina Hendricks), a struggling painter. However, her father Roland (Alessandro Nivola), a public intellectual espousing radical leftist conceits at every turn, seems only concerned with his own stature. Through Ginger’s eyes we witness the dissolution of a marriage for reasons she can only understand in fragments largely shot from her POV. The situation is further complicated when Roland makes a romantic play for Rosa, a shifty maneuver that Ginger struggles to keep from her mother.
Having attended “Ban the Bomb” rallies, Ginger starts formalizing pacifist ideas of her own as her awareness of humanity’s universal fragility blends with the intimate details of her life through a subjective process Potter renders in incredibly affective terms. Struggling with an apparent but unstated attraction to her longtime friend even as Roland makes his move, Ginger finds herself increasingly trapped by a dearth of possibilities. Fanning displays this desperation with a remarkably potent turn heightened by Potter’s frequent use of extreme close-ups. Once Rosa, portrayed by Englert as Ginger’s impetuous opposite, turns a blind eye to her old pal’s feelings, the camera traps Ginger along with everything else in her claustrophobic existence.
This delicate scenario is so well contained that the movie’s few deviations stand out as its sole flaws. Devoid of reliable parental advice, Ginger turns to a middle-aged gay couple (Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall) as well as American poet Bella (Annette Benning) for emotional guidance. While Bella serves the key function of awakening Ginger to a life beyond the domesticity her mother has embraced, the trio strains with underwritten qualities made particularly evident by their contrast with the steady depictions found in the rest of the movie. But Ginger’s mentors are the only sore point in an otherwise seamless patchwork. When contemplating her father, Ginger faces a provocative contradiction that finds her respecting his mind but denouncing his behavior. Rising to the occasion, Nivola takes a potentially one-note debauchee and imbues him with more ambiguous qualities that Ginger constantly wrestles to comprehend.
While Potter’s story is ostensibly straightforward, “Ginger and Rosa” relies on keen cinematic qualities to intensify its effect. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan tops his recent collaborations with Andrea Arnold — all of which similarly render a single perspective through subjective camerawork — by elevating a largely simplistic plot with precise visuals that underline the emotional journey. A lively period piece that uses jukeboxes as its ebullient Greek chorus, “Ginger and Rosa” has a lot to say without offering any firm answers. Potter has crafted a delicate portrait that takes Ginger’s perspective at face value while simultaneously pitying it.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? One of the few acquisition titles at the Telluride Film Festival this year, “Ginger and Rosa” is set to make its official world premiere at Toronto next week and will continue on to the New York Film Festival. Given Fanning’s stature and the movie’s multi-generational plot, it could benefit from strong reviews and broad demographic interest in limited theatrical release.