Writer/director Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa begins with a shot of Hiroshima, smoldering after the detonation of the nuclear bomb known as Little Boy, and then cuts to an English maternity ward where two women labor side by side, each alone in their pain until one reaches out to clutch the other’s hand. They both give birth to little girls, one Ginger (Elle Fanning), and the other Rosa (Alice Englert). As one might expect from a narrative setup like this, their lives remain intertwined.
The story picks up again shortly before the Cuban Missile Crisis, with Rosa now the stereotype of a wild child always in trouble, some of it academic: much of it having to do with boys, and the more dutiful Ginger remaining her fiercest advocate. Rosa’s mother, Anoushka (Jodhi May), abandoned by at least one man, cleans houses for a living and has no control over her daughter. Ginger has two parents, but what a pair. Her father, Roland (Allesandro Nivola) is constantly running around on her mother Natalie (Christina Hendricks of Man Men, who desperately needs help with her accent), once a promising painter, now bitterly focused on all the ways her husband disappoints her. No woman will blame her for this; handsome Roland is a pain in the arse.
During World War II, Roland registered as a conscientious objector, was sent to prison and wrote a manifesto called The Idea of Freedom. The very mention of it causes a hairy disarmament activist to practically genuflect in front of Ginger. That’s just a nickname, by the way, acquired because the girl has her mother’s flaming red hair. Roland, the pretentious twerp, named his daughter Africa
— most of what plagues her comes direct from him and his ideology. “How can anyone really be happy when we know about the bomb?” Ginger asks him. She means this, with all her dear innocent teenaged heart. Roland looks at Ginger appraisingly, patronizingly. “You are a good girl,” he tells her. “You’re a born radical, unsurprisingly. ”The threat of nuclear war is the fearsome phantom hanging over this girl born just after Hiroshima; as a teenager she takes up the disarmament cause (Rosa comes too, although as a less dedicated activist, who may just be there for the boys).
As a portrait of what parental drama does to children, Ginger & Rosa presents a decent case for fleeing the cuckoo’s nest of divorce (the upcoming What Maisie Knew, a modern take on the Henry James novella, is supposed to cover similar ground, although I haven’t seen it yet). Nivola is quite good, but the character is so pathetic and selfish that watching his storyline unfold—it involves Rosa—starts to feel sadistic. The adults in Ginger & Rosa are almost entirely caricatures, although nicely acted caricatures (look for Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall as Ginger’s grave and kind peacenik godfathers, and Annette Bening as a tart activist). Englert, who starred in last month’s under-appreciated Beautiful Creatures, projects worldly airs on Rosa, which Potter then devastatingly strips away. By the time Rosa is saying to Ginger: “I want to tell [Roland] that I understand him,” she seems, for the first time, like a child.
And then there’s Fanning. This is her movie, her heart wrenching scenes the driving force of Ginger & Rosa. The younger Fanning sister has been eerily fantastic in everything from 2004’s The Door in the Floor to Phoebe in Wonderland, in which she played a child with compulsive disorders, to Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, an ennui -soaked affair that needed her occasional smiles like we need oxygen, and of course, Super 8, in which she graduated to playing the dream girl who happened to have, like Fanning, an uncanny gift for acting. She and her sister Dakota are spooky good. Elle is 14 going on 44 in terms of skill—but can still project the manner of pure giddy girl. She exhibits startling depths of emotion. In the dark of night, Ginger listens as her father has sex with one of her friends, just a few feet from where she’s supposed to be sleeping. Fanning keeps all her reactions small and close, but the horror of it fills the screen; it’s as if she’s breathing grief.
But the premise of Ginger & Rosa is oddly stale for a filmmaker like Potter, known for her innovative approach, such as her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s mind-bending Orlando and Yes, a movie scripted almost entirely in iambic pentameter. From the early shot of Ginger and Rosa as young teenagers, sharing a bubble bath and evoking the hell out of Heavenly Creatures, the movie covers familiar ground, the drama of friendship between young girls, one more sexually advanced than the other: Me Without You, My Summer of Love, Albatross and even, just a little, 1964’s The World of Henry Orient. Potter aims for a broader canvas with the Hiroshima and disarmament references—and draws parallels by ending the movie with the revelation of an emotional bombshell that destroys family and friends. But those parallels feel forced and Ginger & Rosa never matches the freshness of its young star.