Ginger & Rosa is one of those semi- autobiographical dramas that writer-directors sometimes make as their debut feature, when they have all of a decade's perspective on their teenage protagonists. Parents shrink in stature in these films from overpowering gods to wounded mortals; friends bind themselves to the soul but then fall away; and the world, though threatened by disruptions large and small, somehow manages to go on so that the budding artist at the center of attention can grow up to make the movie. In all this, Ginger & Rosa runs true to form—except that Sally Potter, never one to do things normally, chose to make the picture in her early 60s, as her seventh feature.
To the young person who typically dreams up such a movie, everything remains a discovery, whether it's a trick of the filmmaker's craft or an insight into still-recent turmoil. To Potter, everything is long familiar, which is part of what makes Ginger & Rosa rewarding. Her emotional juices are intense rather than fresh, having simmered for years into a complex reduction. Her filmmaking radiates the justifiable self-assurance that comes from experience, but also from a willingness (new to Potter) not to second-guess her story.
Abandoning the framing devices she's used from The Gold Diggers and Orlando through The Tango Lesson and Rage, she has made her first straightforward narrative, never pausing to remind you that "Ginger" is actually a young actress named Elle Fanning, or that "London" is a photographic construction brought into being for discursive purposes. You're allowed to believe in what you're seeing for as long as it's on the screen. Maybe, by taking an approach that some would call naïve, Potter has yielded to convention at last; but having reached her early 60s, she knows that not every convention is necessarily at war with inner conviction.
That, as it happens, is one of the themes of Ginger & Rosa. Set during the autumn of the Cuban missile crisis, Ginger & Rosa concerns nuclear war and nuclear-family war—twin threats that seem inseparable to an alert 17-year-old whose ears are filled with BBC reports of projected fatalities, and whose classically dingy brick row house is full of parental recriminations. Ginger's father (Alessandro Nivola), an anarchist pamphleteer of blue-chinned Byronic allure who wants to be "Roland," not "Dad," has charm to spare for his daughter—reminding her, as a small joke, to challenge him too when she questions authority—but for domestic life as such can muster only glowers. The mother, Natalie (Christina Hendricks), who abandoned her artistic aspirations to rear Ginger and clean up after Roland, no longer seems to make jokes, even those that are small and insincere. Hanging untouched on the vine in full ripeness, Natalie frets over her family's penury, seethes over Roland's absences, and boils over at his indifference when she makes a special dinner and he doesn't deign to notice. One parent seems weak, dependent and homebound; the other, strong, free and out in the world, where he fights against nuclear doom. It's no mystery which one Ginger would rather be, and which she will follow when the parents split.
But Ginger has another ideal as well, another second self, who may be even more magnetic than Roland: her best friend from birth, Rosa (Alice Englert). Crescent-faced under a tumble of dark hair where Ginger is a full moon framed in red, Rosa is the one who tries on matching outfits with Ginger in front of the bedroom mirror, chats and smokes away the afternoons with her in the lane or the cafe, tells her that her dream of being a poet has already come true, and leads the way for her into the adventure of boys. Rosa is the first to pair off at a party and start necking, the first to thumb a ride to get to the sea (and the first to jump out of the car when the going gets rough). Ginger follows right behind—although she prefers a side-by-side position, or to lean her head close to Rosa's with their lips almost touching. Despite Ginger's anxieties over nuclear weapons and parental bitterness, she still lives in paradise whenever she's with Rosa.