'Can’t you be a girl for a moment or two longer?’ That’s kindly, avuncular Mark (Timothy Spall) talking to his deadly-serious teenage goddaughter, Ginger (Elle Fanning), in Sally Potter’s intimate, intense coming-of-age drama. It’s set during the Cuban Missile crisis – as the world teeters on the edge of nuclear war. Ginger is on the brink too, and Fanning’s genuinely breathtaking performance, bare and brave (she was 13 at the time) beautifully captures innocence at the moment of its passing – that shiver of teen expectation. What a shame then, that ‘Ginger & Rosa’ is dampened by some ponderous, self-conscious scenes.
It’s 1962, the year the Stones played their first gig, but London is not quite swinging yet. Ginger is marching to ban the bomb. Her best friend, Rosa (Alice Englert), is busy snogging boys and cultivating an air of cool. Director Sally Potter strings together a series of brilliantly observed moments between the two girls. They sit in a bath of cold water shrinking their blue jeans and combing through comics for advice about boys. ‘Girls should have a bubbly personality,’ reads Rosa. ‘Do you think Simone de Beauvoir has a bubbly personality?’ asks Ginger.
Potter isn’t one of British film’s household names. She’s best-known for her film of Virginia Woolf’s novel ‘Orlando’ with Tilda Swinton. But she’s always been able to pull in a starry A-list cast. Christina Hendricks (‘Mad Men’) plays Ginger’s mum, and Annette Bening is a radical feminist. But ‘Ginger & Rosa’ belongs to its teen leads – their performances are more astonishing since neither is British (Fanning is American and Englert is Australian).
Problems between the two girls arise when Rosa sets her sights on Ginger’s writer dad, Roland – a complex performance from Alessandro Nivola. Roland lives by his own rules, ostentatiously ignoring convention. From a certain angle, in a particular light, he looks like a man who lives by his principles – imprisoned as a conscientious objector during World War II. But that same free-thinking principle also makes it okay to cheat on his wife with an underage girl.
All this makes ‘Ginger & Rosa’ an emotionally meaty film. But it’s let down by some earnest, patience-draining philosophising and poetry-reading.