It’s 1962, and the whole world is coming to an end. As the Cuban missile crisis rages on, across the pond we’ve got an apocalypse of another kind in this small, quite wonderful autobiographical remembrance from writer-director Sally Potter. An arthouse darling and something of a tedious pedant, Potter is weirdly renowned for formalist stunts like Yes, in which Joan Allen spoke only in iambic pentameter, or other assorted odds and ends the likes of which Tilda Swinton used to star in before winning an Oscar and sleeping inside a box at the Museum Of Modern Art.
Ginger & Rosa contains none of Potter’s usual gimmicks, and I’m afraid it’s been lost in the shuffle of bigger, showier releases. But this is a fabulous film, vividly realized and anchored by a brilliant performance from young Elle Fanning, rendering the usual teen angst and disillusionment as something both deeply felt and oddly mysterious. The only magical moment of J.J. Abrams’ strained Spielberg homage Super 8 arrived when the pubescent filmmakers figured out they didn’t need special effects if they could just keep the camera rolling on Fanning’s endlessly expressive face. Potter obviously learned the same lesson. This kid is a natural.
Things aren’t going so well at home for Ginger, nicknamed as such for her flame-colored hair, which seems to leap out from the drab, post-war London surroundings. Mom (Mad Men’s va-va-voomy Christina Hendricks) is being ground down to her last nerve by Dad (Face/Off’s Allesandro Nivola), who fancies himself a free-thinking intellectual icon, but is also kind of a skirt-chasing cad. He was imprisoned as a conscientious objector during WWII, and while young Ginger at first worships his iconoclastic pacifism, as the film wears on, it begins to feel like just another dodge from a man who is still studiously avoiding adulthood.
Ginger’s long road of disillusionment is amplified by her friendship with the troubled Rosa, played here by Jane Campion’s daughter Alice Englert, a steely screen presence who had little to do in the recent YA witchcraft swill Beautiful Creatures. But the only spell she casts here is on Ginger’s dad, whom Nivola invests with an awfully annoying air of self-serving moral superiority while making one bad decision after another.
The threat of atomic destruction looms large over Potter’s picture, and Ginger throws herself into “Ban The Bomb” rallies and a budding lefty bohemianism. As her parents’ marriage falls apart, she gets a fair amount of comfort and admiration from their beatnik pals, quoting philosophy texts around the dinner table with Oliver Platt, Timothy Spall and an exceptionally strident Annette Bening.
Have I mentioned yet just how marvelous Fanning is in this picture? Like big sister Dakota, she’s blessed with a poise far beyond her mere handful of years, yet at the same time is vulnerable in ways her stage-kid sibling cannot muster onscreen. Potter leaves the camera locked on Fanning’s face for lengthy sequences on end, registering quick dips between precociousness and fragility as Ginger’s world falls apart and comes together again.
The period detail isn’t bad for an obviously low budget, largely eschewing wide shots and keeping us locked into the main character’s crumbling home life. Hendricks is distractingly gorgeous as ever, but tries her damnedest to de-glam as a suddenly single mom. She’s got a tricky tightrope to walk here, allowing her daughter to keep idealizing Daddy while remaining acutely aware that there’s a rude awakening on the horizon.
Nivola has been too seldom seen onscreen since weirding it up as Nic Cage’s kid brother in Face/Off and playing a luxuriant lothario in Lisa Cholodenko’s underappreciated Laurel Canyon. He’s got a tough row to hoe here as Ginger’s dad, a larger-than-life figure who becomes so much smaller as time goes by.
Potter overdoes it a bit conflating nuclear anxiety with a family’s implosion, but these stray flourishes are tame in comparison to her usual art-school thesis statements. Ginger & Rosa is a short and episodic movie, more concerned with capturing moments than overarching statements.
It wouldn’t work without Fanning, so tough, transparent and aching. The camera loves her, and Potter is smart enough to stay the hell out of her way. In one close-up after another, there exists a roller-coaster of emotions. Ginger’s never as old or as wise as she thinks she is, but she’s getting there. We leave Ginger & Rosa after the death of many illusions but the birth of an artist. Huddled over a notebook in the final frame, it’s easy to imagine her growing up to write a movie just like this one. n
Ginger & Rosa
Starring: Elle Fanning, Alice Englert, Christina Hendricks, Allesandro Nivola
Director: Sally Potter