Adolescence goes nuclear in Ginger & Rosa

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Rating: ★★★★1/2

Rich in symbolism and subtext, it’s not at all by accident that the August 6th 1945 same-day-birth of Ginger and Rosa in London is match cut to the mushroom cloud of Hiroshima. Exploding girls shaped by nuclear nightmares, years later as teens, the girls find themselves growing up in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a manifest sexual metaphor for the volatility of adolescence.

In Ginger & Rosa, destructive force intended for entire populations is metered out on a lifelong friendship which internalises the bomb before being destroyed by it. While many critics might have scoffed at such on-the-nose warnings, you can’t expect subtly from an atom bomb.

A pair of luminous performances set the high stakes of this relationship not long before it gives way to atomic growing pains. Despite being only fourteen years old, Elle Fanning is already the “actress of her generation”, a heavy plaudit she wears well, in a role that cements her transition from child actress to adult thesp. The star of Somewhere, Twixt and Super 8 is already something of a screen veteran at this point, yet her experience does nothing to show up Alice Englert (daughter of director Jane Campion) in her debut role. Englert is so scarily self-assured and sexually liberated, she was seemingly born to burn up the lens. Credit to both performers, so free and easy with one another that you have no trouble believing Ginger and Rosa have been best friends all their lives.

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Blowing free and doing everything together (even their first sexual encounters are shared), the girls live for today, knowing tomorrow they may die. Music, fashion, sex and under age drinking distract from thoughts of mutually assured destruction, and as they hitch rides fuelled by positive pop music, there’s a rhythm of always-on-the-run youthful exuberance, often found wanting in Walter Salles’ recent adaptation of On the Road.

They keep on growing as they keep on moving, and growing apart as they grow older. Representing opposing ends of the era’s radicalism, Ginger is a Simone de Beauvoir–reading existentialist led to activism and protesting the bomb, while Rosa thinks of nobody but herself, her sexual self-destruction a bi-product of the age. If Rosa’s empty fixation on her crucifix gives her divine right to go after everything she wants but never had, then hopping into bed with strangers is something of a religious quest to find a father figure before it’s too late.

Watching her disturbed bestie stroke her crucifix like rosary beads, Ginger takes an identical cross (given to her by Rosa) and mimics the action, trying and failing to understand the friend she’s steadily losing. Their separation is accelerated by the growing attraction between Ginger’s charismatic horndog father Roland (a superb Alessandro Nivola) and Rosa, now quickly blossoming into womanhood. Mentally mature beyond her years, but still with the unmistakable girlish squeal of early adolescence, Ginger not only feels betrayed but left behind. Turning her back to the camera as Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Fruitti’ plays on the Wurlitzer, is one particularly poignant moment in which Ginger says goodbye to the childhood she’s yet to outgrow.

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Adulthood hardly seems much to aspire to, many of the authority figures here squabbling like children. Sally Potter’s script has been heavily criticised for giving outspoken academic Roland some terrible pseudo-philosophical-political claptrap to spout, but surely that’s the point? Such pompous, flowery rhetoric could only be taken seriously by the kind of young, impressionable girls Roland’s trying to bed. And so it is with Rosa.

A freethinking word twister who can’t abide bourgeoisie death-traps like monogamy and the word ‘dad’, Roland’s phoney modernity is nothing more than a licence to be randy. Similarly, his self-righteous disgust with the “shoulds and the oughts of so-called family life” is a jail card dodge of his parental responsibilities, making the the understatement of the year when he admits he’s not father material. Yet, Roland’s way with words is such that it’s easy to see why women are drawn to him. Formally imprisoned as a contentious objector, the way in which he speaks of the experience gives us a glimpse of the humanity beneath the horniness. “Confinement can be utterly beautiful if it’s only a choice. A prison cell is the ugliest expression of minimalism.”

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All this sordid family dysfunction eventually builds to a confrontation that would make Jerry Springer quake in his boots. As Ginger’s increasingly frenzied fears of the world’s end start to dominate her conversation, it becomes clear that it’s nuclear family not annihilation, which is the cause of her distress.

The synchronicity between the nuanced script, the transparent performances and the visual context in which we find them, draws out many telling emotional details (less successful at period perhaps) and Potter streamlines these complexities to make her most distinguished yet commercial film to date. It may have gotten buried at the arthouse, opening against Beasts of the Southern Wild the same week in October, but this is one film that really deserved consideration as the token British hopeful for this year’s academy awards. Like the similarly fated Hyde Park on Hudson, Potter and Fanning’s award chances blew over as early festival buzz quickly dissipated. Still yet to be released in the States until mid-March, it simply didn’t have a big enough international profile at the time for a successful Oscar campaign.

First published by Cine Outsider on February 12, 2013

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