Personal to a fault, Sally Potter’s “Ginger & Rosa” tells the story of two girls, born on the same day and best friends ever since, who drift apart after one decides to shag the other’s dad. To be fair, the film is about so much more than that, though Potter seems at a loss to communicate the ideas behind her agonizingly elliptical picture, leaving auds to marvel at the gorgeous cinematography and scarlet-red hair of its heroine, earnestly played by Elle Fanning in a project undeserving of her talents. Telluride-Toronto-New York fest trifecta should generate enough publicity to intrigue curious arthouse-goers.
At 17 years old, Fanning’s Ginger is just beginning to establish her own identity as something separate from her parents, stay-at-home mom Natalie (Christina Hendricks) and pacifist professor dad Roland (Alessandro Nivola). And yet, she’s such close friends with Rosa (Jane Campion’s daughter, Alice Englert) that the very notion of independence seems a contradiction. The girls are inseparable, defiantly staying out late, smoking cigarettes and riding in cars with boys, as young ladies in such an evocative London-set 1962 period piece are wont to do. (Is there any easier laugh in all of cinema than the obligatory cough after a nonsmoker takes that virgin drag on his or her first cigarette?)
Potter depicts this behavior with vicarious giddiness, encouraging d.p. Robbie Ryan (best known for his work with Andrea Arnold) to push in close on the two girls’ faces, and yet we never really enter their heads. Setting everything to classic jazz tracks that predate her characters, Potter then edits their freewheeling excursions with a jump-cut style that all but excludes school, housework or any responsibilities unlikely to register among the greatest hits of their future memories. Though somewhat generic, this first half hour sparks with an immediate, lived-in vitality.
Stick around, however, and things gradually drift into telenovela territory, as Rosa — already a bit of a tart — commits to the idea of seducing her best friend’s father, facilitated by Roland’s choice to abandon his family in favor of nurturing his romantic self-image as a bohemian philosopher. For Ginger, Rosa’s behavior marks the ultimate betrayal. Still, scandalous as this cross-generational romance may be, one suspects it’s the fact Rosa had the nerve to assert her identity apart from Ginger that’s at the heart of their rift.
While the barely two-dimensional Rosa explores her budding sexuality, Ginger is beginning to think of herself as an artist and activist, joining the Youth Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, where her passion for the cause blurs with possible romantic interest in the group’s scruffy leader (Andrew Hawley). In Ginger’s rare time alone, she writes callow, cringe-inducing rhyming poems about her fear that Cold War rivals Russia and the U.S. will blow the planet sky-high. As Potter underlines ad nauseum, Ginger and Rosa were born the year America dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, and that event defines the way their generation sees the world, much as 9/11 has shaped all who grew up in its wake.
Alas, this isn’t a terribly profound observation, begging the question what makes Ginger and Rosa worthy of their own feature. It’s one of those pics like last year’s “Pariah” where things happen to a relatively passive young female protagonist until the point, in the film’s overly histrionic final stretch, she finally asserts herself creatively — too little too late. Upstaged somewhat by her blazing red dye job, Fanning still commands attention; Englert less so. As both Ginger’s family and primary friendship dissolve, she turns to others, including gay family friends Mark and Mark (Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt) and a never-defined feminist mouthpiece (Annette Bening) for role-model guidance.
It should be said that “Ginger & Rosa” will have its adherents — those who shine to its plotless, Nouvelle Vague-indebted depiction of adolescence, rendered fresh (or at least somewhat less cliched) by dint of its femme-centric outlook. Though the movie gives very little in the way of concrete details for auds to work with, for some, that may be a welcome opportunity to fill the considerable narrative and character gaps with personal experience — particularly if said viewers should happen to be female.