The captivating English coming-of-age drama “Ginger & Rosa,” which mostly takes place in the spring of 1962, feels remarkably vital and immediate. It’s exact about the details, girls ironing their hair, wearing jeans in the bath to shrink them for a perfect fit, the R&B and cool jazz that dominated London jukeboxes in the months before the Beatles hit.
But it’s no yesteryear scrapbook, viewing the era through a gauzy haze of bop nostalgia. Sally Potter’s film is a poignant story of girls growing up too fast, their intimate joys and family crises playing out against the gathering storm of the Cold War. It’s set in an austere time of tasteless food, dreary lodgings and unfortunate plumbing, but also of youth, vitality and, for a time, innocence.
Potter, who wrote and directed, has an artist’s eye and a literary knack for symbols that nest inside one another like so many Russian dolls. She has crafted a near-flawless film, beautifully shot and cut, excitingly performed and deeply felt. It’s gracefully balanced between its two central characters. Born at the mushroom-cloud finale of World War II, they grow up as neighbors and inseparable friends. As clever girls of the time would do, they march for nuclear disarmament. Ginger (Elle Fanning) holds her placard because her radical parents expect it of her. Rosa (Alice Englert) is more interested in the boys she might meet. She’s looking for a love affair that will bring her the stability that eluded her mother, Anoushka (Jodhi May), abandoned by her dad. Good luck with that.
Ginger’s parents are together, theoretically. Her father, Roland (Alessandro Nivola), is an intellectual rebel with smoldering dark good looks, more wedded to the notion of independence than to the woman he married. A history of infidelity is alluded to. A weekend sailor, he explains to Ginger that he’s helpless to resist “the siren call” of love. Ginger’s mother, Natalie (Christina Hendricks), a painter turned housewife, doesn’t deserve such poor treatment, but her retaliatory strikes of emotional blackmail hardly help. One comes to realize that Ginger’s Ban the Bomb ardor is a defense mechanism developed by a child groping for weapons against her parents’ erratic behavior. Easier to march against nuclear annihilation than to confront the stresses that may obliterate your family. Her emotional refuge, Rosa, the more physically mature of the pair, moves ahead into womanhood, leaving Ginger even more isolated.
Potter asks much of her young actresses, who respond brilliantly. Fanning has uncanny reservoirs of talent. She brings unforced clarity to Ginger’s flurrying emotions. Given that she was just 13 when the film was shot, it’s no surprise she’s great at innocent giggling fits with her best friend. But observe her mature, complex tangle of pride and chagrin when a mention of one of Roland’s acclaimed essays surprises a handsome young peace marcher. “That’s your father?” he says, awed. Her look says, “He’s an insufferable genius.” It’s one of those electrifying performances where you know you’re watching a new star emerge.
As Rosa, Alice Englert makes sense of a complicated character who is religious and romantic, yet ultimately pragmatic about men and how to wrangle them. She’s a keen analyst of emotion. Her dialogue with Fanning has the easy rhythm of longtime friends. It’s huge fun to watch them act out their not-quite-right ideas of how girls and boys fit together. And then, when their relationship hits the rocks, it’s painful.
There’s strength in the supporting cast. Nivola is the perfect cad, one who can rationalize hurting other people, feels a bit bad about it, but won’t stop. Annette Bening has an extended cameo as a blunt American poet who cuts through all the British repression and helps Ginger blurt out her feelings at long last.
The film ends on a tender note of grief, English decency and grace under pressure. Potter and her cast know that youth movies that are entirely wholesome, life-affirming and cute are only telling half the story. “Ginger & Rosa” tells it all and gets it right.