Film Review – Ginger & Rosa

Ginger & Rosa Movie PosterIn Ginger & Rosa, director Sally Potter captures the emotional turmoil of two teenage girls in London during the Cuban missile crisis. Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) are best friends. Ginger is the smarter one; she wants to be a poet, and is able to think about major events in the world and form opinions, especially on the threat of nuclear war. Yet, she has the desire to be free, to run around with her best friend and kiss some boys and hitchhike. Rosa is more concerned with a spiritual connection. Her father left when she was young and she is desperate not to end up like her mother, cleaning houses. She has faith that things happen by the will of God.

There is a great deal of initial set-up for the girls’ friendship, with montages of them kissing boys together and running around being silly. It makes for a slow start to the film, but when we see the way Ginger interacts with her family, we really get some insight into her mind. With her mother, Natalie (Christina Hendricks), who has no job and gave up being an artist to have Ginger when she was a teenager, she is more short and condescending. Ginger never wants be like her mother; her mother wants Ginger to be something more as well, but is too focused on the trouble with her husband Roland (Alessandro Nivola) to be someone that Ginger can really talk with. Her father is an intellectual with whom Ginger can have a conversation about beliefs, but she tries to not be a bother to him because he is always down on any attempt to constrain him emotionally, and she wants his respect.

Roland sees all social conventions as constraints, and he is free of this and wants to live his life. This is actually is an excuse to avoid responsibilities. He treats his wife like she is emotionally blackmailing him just for wanting to be thanked for making dinner. He is only interested in people who think he is brilliant and damaged, therefore Rosa is easy prey for Roland’s attentions and grand ideas. That Roland will go after Rosa is obvious; it is in the time spent watching Ginger dealing with this that we see the true damage. She looks up to her father and sees his ways of thinking as more liberating and thoughtful. Yet his behavior is not something that any young girl can just see and deal with, so she becomes more involved in her nuclear war meetings as a way to cope with the world falling apart for her both emotionally and physically.

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Her one respite from all this is her interactions with Mark (Timothy Spall) and Mark Two (Oliver Platt), her godparents, and their activist friend, Bella (Annette Bening). With them is where Ginger gets to be herself the most. She can talk freely about her worries and get honest adult answers on war, and in the next moment do a cartwheel and get laughs from the adults seeing her being a girl. These are a welcome respites when we see all the trouble that is being placed on someone so young, no matter how smart she is. Elle Fanning is great at capturing the duality of a troubled, smart young girl. She can be carefree and happy one moment, and then we see the intensity in her when she attends a rally and talks with a passion that seems out of place in one so young. The strongest moments for her are when her father’s actions hit her and the emotional toll crosses her face. She sells the sadness and conflicting feelings, and it breaks your heart to see her cry.

While Fanning is the obvious stand-out, the whole cast is uniformly great, being able to play multiple levels and never making the characters into simple archetypes of the forgotten wife or the emotionally distant father. They are all given a chance to be stronger or give into their frailties and keep us involved. Potter’s direction is also very strong. While a bit too fond of close-up looks at times, she is great at setting the tones not just with her cast, but through her sets and lighting.

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One of the best shots comes after Roland has moved out of the family home and Ginger checks in on Natalie (mother), who is now painting again. The house that was drab and always shown dark and in the shadows is now full of light and appears bigger than before. The space has opened up, not just contrasting the old shots of the home, but those of Roland’s small boat and apartment which remain dark. It gives Ginger the sense that she sees more clearly what her father’s actions have done to her mother, and also her own perception of her mother.

This is a wonderfully effective piece, looking at growing up under extraordinary circumstances. It tackles nuclear war, philosophical life choices, and teenage anxiety without ever going over into melodrama. The best part, however, is Elle Fanning’s wonderful performance. This all together makes for one of the finest viewing experiences of the beginning of the year.

Final Grade: A-


Benjamin is a film connoisseur and Oscar watcher who lives in Minneapolis and, when not reviewing movies, works at the Hennepin County Library.

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