In my favorite Anne Sexton poem “Rowing,” one line in particular always sticks out to me: “I wore rubies and bought tomatoes/and now, in my middle age/about nineteen in the head I'd say/I am rowing, I am rowing.” While the characters in Sally Potter’s terrific Ginger and Rosa (superbly played by Elle Fanning and Alice Englert) are 16—the feeling of equal parts exhilaration and complete anguish of being a teenage girl permeates to its core. It echoes Sexton’s sentiment wholeheartedly, that we want youth when we are adults and want to be adults when we are young.
Set in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, best friends Ginger and Rosa are inseparable in that way only teen girls can be. They bathe together, languishly smoke cigarettes, furiously make out with boys in darkened alleyways and even wear matching outfits. The film follows the pair throughout their day to day lives, giving us the inevitable feeling that growing up, especially in such a turbulent time, will wreak havoc on the two. This kind of obsessive female love is always the most devastating when it falls apart.
Potter does an excellent job of juxtaposing the eventual disintegration of the friendship of the pair to the escalating nuclear crisis. The pair are relegated to their specific roles in their friendship—Ginger as the quiet, thoughtful one and Rosa as the wild, sexual one. When both toe over their invisible lines—Rosa with her sudden religious interest and Ginger’s sudden allure to boys—the reinforcement of their roles manifests itself in particularly devastating ways.
Potter infuses the film with other girl to woman markers with rituals of makeup, sex, rock & roll and politics/activism. With a tremendous supporting cast including Annette Bening as a political activist, Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall as Ginger’s gay godfathers, Christina Hendricks as Ginger’s ever suffering mother mainly because of her husband, a typical academic mansplaining type played to pretentious perfection by Alessandro Nivola.
Seeped in feminist politics, Potter’s film never negates or criticizes the constant end of the world feelings being a teenage girl holds. And Potter sure enough revisits it in Sexton’s terms—that sometimes even as an adult woman certain things (like this film) can bring you back to that feeling all over again.
Ginger and Rosa will have an Oscar qualifying run before the end of the year. It will be released in early 2013.