A coming-of-age teen friendship tale set against the backdrop of Cold War nuclear anxiety and the burgeoning sexual revolution in mid-'60s London, "Ginger & Rosa" tackles the idea of bonds shattered by ideological differences and examines the sobering cost of the newfound intellectualism, which often came at the expense of proper nurturing and guidance.
A wonderfully characterisation-rich element of the film is Ginger’s relationship to her father Roland (Alessandro Nivola, in a superb turn). An intellectual imprisoned for his beliefs (a conscientious objector during the war), the period transforms the man into a philosophizer, a deep thinker and further, an unfaithful lothario. Like most teenage girls, Ginger adores her father, but the truth remains that he puts grand and lofty ideas of intellectual freedom and nonconformity above his family and his doting, unappreciated wife Natalie (Christina Hendricks). Ginger is enamored of the ardent and unapologetic beliefs that drive his life, but when she gets to experience the effects of them firsthand, they are uncompromisingly cruel and insensitive.
As their paths lead in opposite directions, Ginger and Rosa’s friendship is tested, and like the arms race building up around them threatens to, it eventually explodes into a brutal and desecrating betrayal. Also featuring Annette Bening, Timothy Spall, Oliver Platt and Jodhi May, “Ginger & Rosa” has a solid cast in support. They play friends of Natalie and Roland, but also serve as alternate parental models to the curious but confused and angst-filled Ginger.
Being directed and written by the not-known-for-being-accessible Sally Potter, “Ginger & Rosa” may be too exploratory for mainstream audiences. If there’s a dealbreaker for audiences or commercially minded critics, it’s the fact that the narrative tends to grow unwieldy and wanders non-linearly from a coming-of-age story to something much more complex and wider (and no doubt autobiographical) about how the post-war generation’s social upheaval and radical thinking damaged the children of this era (of which Potter was clearly one).
Apart from Fanning’s incredible childlike vulnerability, which is often just heartbreaking, Alessandro Nivola's performance is also something to deeply admire. The oft-undervalued actor imbues grace and courage in an uncompromising character and achieves the rare feat of making vile and disgusting behavior simply a part of a complicated three-dimensional character, rather than allowing it to define him wholly. As Rosa, Alice Englert doesn’t have as much character stuff to chew on as Fanning, but the actress also puts in a commanding performance that points toward a bright future. But it's Fanning who lingers in “Ginger & Rosa,” with picturing sealing the deal for the actress as a serious performer who is going to have a long and valued career in cinema. One assumes the teenage role short-list is led by her and the arguably more traditional Chloë Moretz from here on out.
Philosophically landing in a place where moral integrity and passion can exact enormous cruelty on a person's life, Potter’s picture is clearly a very personal one, but its depiction of global and social destruction (or its potential) is still deeply humanistic and universal. Beautiful, yet dark and moving, unsparing, but told with a sympathetic eye, “Ginger & Rosa” is sometimes relentless in its examination of emotional pain, and as such may be a challenging picture for some audiences. But for those who give it a shot, they'll be rewarded with a layered and rich little gem of a picture about life, love, and trying to find and understand one's place in the world. [B+]
This is a slightly edited reprint of our review from the Telluride Film Festival.