Elle Fanning is simply extraordinary as a budding teen in 1962 London who takes the whole weight of the world on her small shoulders in Ginger & Rosa, Sally Potter’s sharply observed tale of growing up amid the turmoil the nuclear threat and familial discord. The film’s small scale is more than compensated for by its insights into adolescent awareness, the passions stoked by global causes and the moral hypocrisy of the ideologically righteous. Marketing efforts would best be centered on Fanning’s breakthrough performance, which will attract sufficient attention to push the film into decent-sized specialized theatrical release.
Although the central character here, Ginger, is a few years younger and the focus is far more political, the setting, time frame and older-man/underaged-girl dynamic from a female point of view run parallel to the core concerns of An Education. Potter’s film is more blunt, tough-minded and raw, marked by ban-the-bomb protests rather than outings to posh boites and getaways to barren seashores instead of Paris.
But the moral and sexual queasiness is similar, as best friends Ginger (Fanning), an intellectually inquiring blue-eyed redhead, and the darker, more sensually curious Rosa (Alice Englert), break away from adverse domestic climates to explore the big bad world. And bad it looks, particularly to Ginger, whose pacifist writer father Roland (Nivola) has made her ultra-sensitive to the real threats of the nuclear build-up in the months preceding the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The precociously attractive girls divide their time between sorties on which Rosa finds guys to fool around with while Ginger sits by and, at the latter’s prodding, attendance at political organizing meetings and anti-nuke marches of the Bertrand Russell period. Ginger’s dad couldn’t be prouder of her -- “That’s my girl. You’re an activist,” Roland beam -- although acrimony between him and wife Nat (Christina Hendricks) is so bad he moves out, with Ginger soon to follow.
As a result, Ginger and Rosa begin spending weekends on Roland’s sailboat, where, through the thin cabin walls, Ginger is mortified to overhear the all-too-evident start of an affair between her father and her best friend, who can’t be more than 15. Ginger harbors some guilt over the fact that her mother was a teenager when she was born and is now completely miserable. In the event, the overwhelmed girl can only seek solace in the company of the godfather and godmother figures brightly played by Timothy Spall, Oliver Platt and Annette Bening, the latter as a smart-mouthed American lefty.
At one point, Spall’s owlish gent gently asks of Ginger, “Can’t you be a girl for a moment or two longer?” but under the circumstances that’s no longer an option. She’s briefly jailed when police randomly round up protestors at a nighttime rally, but the reckoning the awaits once she returns home proves even more punishing.
The left-wing slant of all the characters is a given, but Potter is particularly acute at dealing with the appalling moral gap between Roland’s global politics and his personal conduct. Roland wears his pacifist credentials like a badge and uses his youthful imprisonment as a conscientious objector as a license to reject any and all of society’s rules. “What right have you to judge me?” he lashes out when finally called on his wayward relationship with Rosa.
Nivola smartly plays Roland with a softness that slightly dilutes the character’s ideological smugness, although his consistent male-model stubble is represents a constant annoyance, as this was simply not a look that was cultivated in 1962. The cast, in fact, is surprisingly full of Yanks, but all are spot-on with their accents and performances, including Hendricks as the abandoned wife and mother.
Cast a bit older to reflect her character’s heightened erotic awareness, Englert flaunts a kind of Charlotte Gainsbourg show-me poutiness and a premature assuredness in her own prowess. Seventeen when the film was made, Englert is the daughter of director Jane Campion.
But Ginger & Rosa belongs to Fanning, who was just 13 during the shoot. On top of the entirely convincing accent and a chameleon quality so pronounced that it would be easy to believe that the actress onscreen is a terrific English unknown, Fanning exhibits an amazing range as a kid overwhelmed by the idea that humanity could be wiped out tomorrow, topped by the two-for-one betrayal by her father and closest friend. The boiling emotion that finally bursts Ginger’s seams when it all has to come out feels entirely real and not the least bit theatrical; one can only imagine how long it will take for this sensitive young soul to sort out all the issues she’s left with by the misdeeds of those around her, not to mention the larger world.
Clearly working on a tight budget, Potter and cinematographer Robbie Ryan keep the camera close to the characters and eschew any elaborate period recreation. The soundtrack draws heavily on jazz of the period, from Monk, Brubeck, Davis and many others.
Production: Adventure Pictures, BFI, BBC Films
Venues: Telluride, Toronto, New York film festivals
Cast: Elle Fanning, Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendricks, Timothy Spall, Oliver Platt, Jodhi May, Annette Bening, Alice Englert
Director: Sally Potter
Screenwriter: Sally Potter
Producers: Christopher Sheppard, Andrew Litvin
Executive producers: Reno Antoniades, Aaron L. Gilbert, Goetz Grossman, Heidi Levitt, Joe Oppenheimer, Paula Alvarez Vaccaroni
Director of photography: Robbie Ryan
Production designer: Carlos Conti
Costume designer: Holly Waddington
Editor: Anders Refn
Running time 89 minutes