Film Review: Ginger & Rosa

Alice Englert gives the standout performance as one of the titular characters in this perhaps too-smart-for-its-own-good study of troubled adolescence.

It’s 1962 London and adolescent Ginger (Elle Fanning) is inseparable best friends with Rosa (Alice Englert). Under the influence of her father Roland (a preening Alessandro Nivola), a left-leaning writer, she is ultra-sensitive to the nuclear problem in these pre-Cuban Missile Crisis days, and the two girls dutifully attend anti-nuke meetings and demonstrations, while dealing with their own burgeoning hormones.

Roland’s utter self-absorption has created rifts in his marriage to Nat (Christina Hendricks), causing him to eventually move out. Ginger, a total daddy’s girl, follows suit, living with him on his sailboat, but when Roland and Rosa embark on a clandestine affair, she feels totally alienated.

Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa is evidently highly autobiographical in reflecting her own youth, and it’s filled with the loving, careful period detail of fond reminiscence. She delineates the relationship between Ginger and Rosa with humor-filled emotional accuracy: You truly believe the girls are soul mates. And yet her film is somewhat less involving than one would wish. This may very well have to do with her intense focus on the girls, particularly Ginger, as Rosa’s character rather dissolves with her own swifter sexual maturing.

The title of the film becomes misleading about three-quarters of the way in, as we really only get half the story. We see everything through Ginger’s eyes, be it her worshipful gaze toward her father (who really is a selfish lout) or her callous dismissal of her mother (Hendricks is given far too little to do except suffer). As a result, despite all the empathy and intelligence Fanning brings to her performance, as well as a decent Brit accent, she emerges as a less appealing, more deluded figure than Potter may have planned.

Of the two girls, Englert gives the more compelling performance, imbuing Rosa with a sharpness of wit and easy sensuality that make her nearly as riveting as the devastating, sloe-eyed Emily Blunt was in the similarly themed My Summer of Love. Her character is a more conventional and therefore more sympathetic teenager than Ginger, with her overtly precocious, dire concerns about doomsday and love of T.S. Eliot. Timothy Spall brings some welcome energy, but Oliver Platt and Annette Bening are rather grating as a liberal American couple, friends of Roland’s, who cozily cluck about the girls. As with so many of Potter’s works, the brain takes precedence over the emotions, making her films undeniably intelligent if always a tad chilly.