Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) were born with dawn of the bomb—on August 9, 1945, their mothers side by side in labour in some London hospital just as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were being decimated—and thus born into a dread-draped world that would thereafter seem always about to end. We meet them proper 17 years later, and when you’re 17 the world is always about to end. Which makes you cling to that one comrade who knows the score, understands the good fight and the woozy exhilaration of adolescent desperation, righteousness and possibility. The girls are best friends. They giggle a lot, dress alike, groom in tandem, hitchhike together and scan the culture for paths to higher meaning and purpose. Ginger, the more disciplined of the two, joins the anti-nuclear protest movement, and may become a writer. Near the film’s end, after much tumult, her father, Roland (Alessandro Nivola), asks Ginger what she’s working on. “A poem,” she replies. “About the future.” Ginger & Rosa, the latest film from veteran English filmmaker Sally Potter (Orlando, Yes), is a coming-of-age story set in roughly the same heady period as Potter’s own youth. It is Potter’s poem about the past.
And it is a highly subjective view of that past. Ginger & Rosa adheres closely to its titular characters’ perspectives—Ginger’s most especially, since she emerges as the film’s protagonist—in the sense that people and politics and places come to us with the sort of texture and tone we might expect from an exceptionally smart and passionate teenager, but a teenager nonetheless. Ginger is lovingly imbued with nuance, complicated feelings and resonant contradictions, and Fanning, who is actually significantly younger than the role, and who was recently so wonderful in Somewhere, is nothing short of a revelation here. While many of the adults, embodied by actors as talented and intelligent as Timothy Spall, Oliver Platt, Annette Bening and Christina Hendricks, conform more closely to mere ideas of adults: tweedy, intellectual radical role models on the one hand, a martyr-parent on the other. Roland, interestingly, is a notable exception. Interesting because he’s also the most irresponsible and flawed, the key factor in the how the story suddenly pivots and Ginger’s already frail sense of domestic stability snaps completely. Roland is charming, pretentious, frustrated, inspiring, loving in his way and appalling in his way—the adult most like a teenager. He weeps over Schubert. He moves into a cramped apartment at one point, claiming that there is “a poetry in small spaces.”
And the film’s poetry, too, is in the smaller narrative spaces it inhabits. As Potter hurls us into the high and contrived drama of the final act, Ginger & Rosa loses something of its emotional precision and often exquisite sense of place and time, but in its earlier scenes, which seem unconcerned with momentum, are almost moment-for-moment captivating and transporting, deftly dressed, photographed, and edited to a spare but sensual rhythm. Like Olivier Assayas’ recent semi-autobiographical masterpiece Something in the Air, Ginger & Rosa gives us a window into a time when the question of balancing the personal and political was boggling and urgent. That it explores this question through the story of two young women, and does so sensitively and strikingly, makes it that much rarer among coming-of-age films, and immensely valuable.