Sally Potter’s “Ginger and Rosa” is a coming of age story focusing on two British teen girls. It doesn’t necessarily cover new ground but like Stephen Chbosky’s wonderful 2012 movie ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” it’s done in a graceful, eloquent and nonoverdramatic way. Also like “Perks” Potter focuses virtually all of the attention on the characters.
“Perks” and “Ginger and Rosa” both center on the topic of living. Living life day by day, everyday is a new experience. However, the two movies are vastly different. “Perks” is about a group of teenage friends with emotional baggage trying to make the best of their situations through having fun, whereas “Ginger and Rosa” is more about straight up rebellion. The characters in “Rosa” don’t look like they’re having much fun. Part of this has to do with the time that it’s set. “Perks” was set during the 1990’s but “Rosa” is set in 1962, the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The threat of nuclear annihilation looms in the air. The mood of the film is colder and gloomy, even the scenes taking place during the day are dim.
The only time you really get a sense that fun is being had is during the first fifteen or so minutes, when we’re introduced to Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert), who have been friends since birth. We see them smoke, go to a church service out of curiosity, make out with a couple of guys, hitchhike, romp around on a beach and get scolded by their mothers for staying out too late. This is the only time in the film when Ginger and Rosa seem to enjoy being girls, indulging in the pleasures of youth. For the rest of the movie they’re trying to be grownups
As that description of activities above may suggest, Ginger and Rosa are restless as well as rebellious. They don’t respect their mothers because they live a bland, domestic life. They want guidance but not in the form of parental. That’s why Ginger responds more to her dad Roland (Alessandro Nivola), an intelligent but pompous activist/teacher who says he was imprisoned for his radicalism. He doesn’t play the traditional father role to Ginger but lets her run free and teaches her about life and culture. However, he’s also very charismatic and handsome and so Rosa becomes attracted to him.
It’s here where Ginger and Rosa’s friendship becomes threatened and you see how different the two supposed friends are. They’re both rebellious, sure, but rebellious in different ways. Ginger gets swept up in the activism surrounding the Missile Crisis; you see her attending a few “anti bomb” meetings and protests. She wants to save the world and that doesn’t involve general schooling or having children, or learning how to cook. Rosa on the other hand is more concerned with love. She’s captivated by Roland and his intellect and thinks she can save his wounded soul. She has no idea of the changing world around her.
In the end though--as in the case with most adolescents—Ginger and Rosa are confused and don’t really know what they want. Ginger keeps going on about how she doesn’t want to die by nuclear war because she “wants to do things” but we don’t find out what those “things” are because she doesn’t know. She wants to change things and yet she’s also extremely pessimistic about the future and worried about the nuclear bombs. At times she’s at the brink of hysteria. Rosa on the other hand is delusional in her relationship with Roland. She says she can “fix” him and that they have so much in common, but what exactly? She’s just attracted to his intelligence and his experiences of things such as being in solitary confinement. Her mother had her when she was a teenager and Rosa’s father was nonexistent, little does Rosa know she’s heading down a similar path. For how simple Potter’s film is, it has a surprising amount of depth.
As I’ve said before “Ginger and Rosa” is almost completely character driven and so the performances pretty much make or break the film. While Englert gives a wonderfully natural and mature performance, Fanning is the standout. Even though it’s called “Ginger and Rosa” it’s more about Ginger, everything is seen through her. Fanning gives an authentic, nuanced performance. She perfectly captures a confused, angsty but also intelligent teenager (as she should, since Fanning herself is fourteen). She’s the central force of the movie.