Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) have been best friends since their birth in the year 1945. As the opening footage reminds us, this is the year the bomb was dropped in Hiroshima (& Nagasaki). The pair are now 17 in 1962 London and looking to declare their independence from their mothers once more. This rebirth takes place in the auspicious year of another massive bomb threat, global events culminating in a Cuban Missile Crisis.
Even though Ginger and Rosa have their differences, they are intimate friends, sharing everything. In fact, they take pride in their transparency and steadfastness. You’ll note how often they are dressed alike (& how this diverges). The friendship takes on a special vitality under the threat of doomsday and crumbling households, which makes the increasing sensation of their growing apart particularly distressing in the film.
As with any coming-of-age story, the hero’s desire an ability to exercise “autonomous thought, personal truth, freedom of action.” Of course, Ginger’s father Roland (Alessandro Nivola), to whom is attributed the quote, cites these as his “guiding principles” as someone who has supposedly already come-of-age. I say “supposedly” because his is a character that is troublingly adolescent; which troubles these principles that other adults in the film actually agree with.
Ginger and Rosa is a YA-related film that actually has adults (& no marketable soundtrack). Indeed, one part of the conflict is mentorship or appropriate adult figures to the youth in transition. Roland’s lifestyle tempered by that of Ginger’s (awesome) family friends Mark (Timothy Spall), Mark Two (Oliver Platt) and Bella (Annette Benning), and the lives of Ginger and Rosa’s mothers. The girls feel neglected and harassed by their mothers, but Ginger does find counsel with the family friends and political writings (she tries to discuss Simone de Beauvoir with Rosa at one point, is reading T.S. Eliot). Bella is a poet-activist, what Ginger wants to be. Rosa, who is not the primary protagonist of the two, seeks the advice of popular magazines and a faith we assume is handed down from her mother.
Rosa seeks the more domestic goals. Careless of the scope of a global crisis, she desires a love that will last, that can shelter and carry her through anything in the present. Whether she truly understands Roland or not, they share a similar focus in their seize the day philosophy, tired of pandering to the self-serving demands of their authority figures. Ginger feels that life might require some sacrifice, particularly on the part of the other. Writer/director Sally Potter creates an active passivity in Ginger’s character, the conflict of desiring to yield to those she loves, for the sake of those she loves, yet also doing something that could change things for the betterment of everyone. We fear she will self-destruct before the bomb even actualizes.
In some ways, Ginger and Rosa are Roland in two parts. And we come to anticipate that perhaps it is not only the mothers the girls need to liberate themselves from, but their fathers, or shared father (as Rosa’s left long before). Potter does play ambiguously with the daddy-issues available to the female coming-of-age story. That it manifests in the sexual act is noteworthy; as is a female director’s handling of it. She does not eroticize the abuses, nor does she accuse the girls as Ginger’s mother Natalie (Christina Hendricks) does.
In a story where these young women are testing boundaries, believing they know better than their mothers about the modern world and their sexuality (timeless, right?), a figure catches us off-guard and proves to be a potentially fatal conflict in the narrative.
Ginger is constantly preoccupied with the looming sensation of the end of the world. While bombs could be dropped, she believes it with a terrifying certainty. She has chosen this as something she can believe in, now to believe that she can and will do something to make it all stop. Honestly, I was not optimistic her poetry was going to do anything for her or the cause. Meanwhile, the domestic scene suffers an increasingly catastrophic fall-out that does culminate in an explosion.
Ginger & Rosa is not the most uplifting film for a summer evening (I propose an autumn viewing). However, it is a beautifully crafted one. And I suppose there is a certain gift of optimism the final confrontation affords. Ginger is still pursuing her voice and the desire to love in healthy and profound ways. Sally Potter closes the film with Ginger in the foreground, pen in hand. The film is sad though, Potter allowing her characters to be complex, unwilling to shift them too dramatically. She chooses the comforts of realism over the mythological. Potter disrupts that otherwise fairytale beginning of two girls, best friends from birth, filmed in a charming, magical fashion with the opening footage of the Hiroshima bombing. Potter disrupts a lot of things.
Of note: I realized at the end of my writing, I did not address an important aspect to this film, which is the disarming perspective of 1962 from London. No, actually, the import is the weight the actors bring. We all know by now that Elle Fanning is an actress to watch, but the entirety of the casting should encourage prospective viewers. The film is an excellent one, and its casting does not hurt at. all.
Ginger & Rosa (2012); writer/director Sally Potter; editing by Anders Refn; cinematography Robbie Ryan; executive producers Reno Antoniades, Aaron L. Gilbert, Goetz Grossmann, Heidi Levitt, Joe Oppenheimer & Paula Vaccaro; producers Jonas Allen, Lene Bausager, Caroline Blanco, Peter Bose, Margot Hand, Kurban Kassam, Andrew Litvin, Christopher Sheppard, & Michael Weber. BBC Films, British Film Institute, & Det Danske Filminstitut; A24.
Starring : Elle Fanning (Ginger), Alice Englert (Rosa), Alessandro Nivola (Roland), Christina Hendricks (Natalie), Jodhi May (Anoushka), Timothy Spalding (Mark), Oliver Platt (Mark Two), & Annette Benning (Bella).
Rated PG-13 for mature disturbing thematic material involving teen choices – sexuality, drinking, smoking, and for language. Running Time 90 minutes