By Joan Ellis
Ginger and Rosa is a serious movie that is almost, though not quite, undone by its flaws. It’s worth taking a chance. In the opening scene, the mushroom cloud rises over Hiroshima. Throughout the story that image will be the symbol that throws a dark shadow over the family at hand. In 1962 London, the Cuban missile crisis has reignited doomsday thinking, especially in the mind and emotions of 17-year-old Ginger (Elle Fanning).
Ginger lives in active disharmony with her self-righteous intellectual father Roland (Alessandro Nivola) and her self-sacrificing, bitter mother Natalie (Christina Hendricks). Ginger and her best friend Rosa (Alice Englert) are teenagers trying to navigate the early ‘‘60s with both the Cold War and the sexual revolution driving the culture around them. If the end of the world is coming, forget the norms. Rosa heads straight for the experimental encounters of the sexual revolution while Ginger sinks into a depressive dread of nuclear war. Both indulge themselves in wild side temptations – hitchhiking, smoking, late nights out. But their friendship unravels completely when Rosa indulges in a cruel act of betrayal.
After her parents separate, Ginger takles refuge in her father’s apartment where his pacifist thinking parallels her own. Far more important than looming nuclear catastrophe is the simple truth that no matter which parent she is with, Ginger can never go home again. She has lost both parents and her close friend to emotional distance and is sunk in sadness, a deep well of it that Elle Fanning makes heartbreakingly real.
She finds encouragement with sensible, warm friends of the family – a gay couple, Mark I (Oliver Platt) and Mark II (Timothy Spall), and their visiting American friend Bella (Annette Bening) who pulls Ginger toward activism in the anti-war movement that they have in common.
No movie directed by Sally Potter is ever ordinary and this one is all about strong performances against a background of long stretches of silence. The only soundtrack you will hear is when someone plays the piano or a record. During those silences, the only action you will see is the sorrow on Ginger’s face. She is awash in emotional loss. With almost nothing to live for in her young mind, she wants desperately to live anyway. Amidst the loss of the people she loved, she finds a cause in the anti-war movement.
This is an unpleasant story, but the acting – all of it – is first rate. Special salutes go to Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt as the family friends, and most especially to Elle Fanning who can convey a world of feeling with the slightest expression. She shows the awful loneliness of a very young person who has lost everyone she loved. That aloneness at her age is the core of Sally Potter’s story of alienation. Elle Fanning will be around for a long time and watching her talent grow will be any movie lover’s great pleasure.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.