We’re all shaped by our environments. Whether it’s the family we grew up in or the times we find ourselves, there’s no denying the massive influence that outside factors have in contributing to the people we’ll become. That’s never more true than in our formative adolescent years, a point that’s hammered home in writer-director Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa, a coming-of-age period tale about a young woman who discovers that her worldview might not be as freely chosen as she’d like to think.
The woman in question is Ginger (Elle Fanning), a redheaded teen living in London in the weeks leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Her parents are a study in contrasts. Her mother (Christina Hendricks) is a former painter who gave up her dreams after she got pregnant with Ginger as a teen. Her father (Alessandro Nivola) is a self-proclaimed anarchist who has spent some time in prison. Ginger longs to be a poet and starts to become politically active, attending nuclear disarmament meetings and appearing at rallies. She lives for the approbation of her dad and the disapproval of her protective mother.
But perhaps the most important person in her life is her best friend Rosa (Beautiful Creatures’ Alice Englert), whom she’s known for as long as she can remember. Living with her single mother (Jodhi May) and less well-adjusted than Ginger, Rosa acts out by being flirtatious, winning boys’ attention in the process. It causes the slightest bit of tension between the two women—Ginger quietly envies her friend’s sexual confidence—but their years of friendship and shared progressive attitudes are too strong a bond to ever allow anything to come between them. That is, until that bond is severely tested.
Potter, known for provocative work like Orlando, is working in a more familiar, accessible mode in Ginger & Rosa. Still, it’s telling that her version of a coming-of-age tale is less about hormones and life lessons gently learned than it is a painful exploration of the ways in which growing up sometimes means shedding the parts of our identity we’ve adopted from those around us.
As played by Fanning—Dakota’s younger sister who appeared in Super 8 and Somewhere—Ginger is a fragile little creature whose air of intelligent sophistication is always just one strong gust of wind away from crumbling. Unsurprisingly, when an unconscionable romantic complication enters her life, she’s destroyed, but Fanning slowly teases out that heartbreak, allowing each moment to linger and burn. Ginger’s growing fear of nuclear annihilation intertwines beautifully with the upheaval in her personal life. Unable to come to terms with the betrayal she’s a part of, she fixates more and more on the saber-rattling between the U.S. and the Soviets over warheads in Cuba; to Ginger, the possible destruction of the planet seems more controllable than the end of her own world.
Ginger & Rosa tells its story through a series of understated, deeply evocative scenes. Working with longtime Andrea Arnold cinematographer Robbie Ryan, Potter incorporates handheld cameras early on to suggest the unbridled freedom of youthful exuberance but later switches over to composed but still richly atmospheric shots, signaling that Ginger’s innocence is coming to an end.
To be sure, Ginger & Rosa doesn’t have much new to say about teen heartbreak, but it’s a modest, well-observed film—it would have made a fine short story—whose performances are all on point. Hendricks nails her character’s sense of muted regret and bitterness, and Englert is superb as Rosa, suggesting a young woman who recognizes her own allure but doesn’t yet possess the self-confidence to know how to control it. As for Nivola, he’s just right as a charismatic man who proudly flaunts his disdain for social norms. He may be proud of himself for insisting that Ginger call him by his first name—he rejects the title of “dad”—but he proves to be far less mature than the daughter whose life he thinks he’s enriching through his example.
Director: Sally Potter
Writer: Sally Potter
Starring: Elle Fanning, Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendricks, Timothy Spall, Oliver Platt, Jodhi May, Annette Bening, Alice Englert
Release Date: Mar. 15, 2013