Adrift at sea, Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) lie next to each other in bunks. On the radio, a BBC news anchor announces that the Royal Air Force has positioned and prepared missiles to fire against Russia in the case of Soviet aggression. Eyes wide and panicked, Ginger rolls over to face her friend and asks, “Did you hear that?” Distracted by the faint sounds of piano music and crying, Rosa doesn’t answer her friend’s question but instead peers through a hole in the boat’s wall. In her limited line of vision, Rosa sees Ginger’s father, Roland (Alessandro Nivola), sobbing. As Ginger stares at Rosa staring at her father, she realizes that something is changing.
The two friends, teenagers in London at the height of the Cold War, are inseparable as they skip school to wander the city’s enticing streets and attend nuclear disarmament meetings. Ginger in particular is drawn to the meetings, where passionate young organizer Tony (Andrew Hawley) inspires her to protest the coming nuclear holocaust and awakens deep, sometimes troubling feelings in the teen. A faithful companion, Rosa is less consumed than Ginger with the end of the world and the impossibilities of unrequited love. She focuses instead on her growing fascination with enigmatic lefty Roland.
Director Sally Potter’s narrative about teens in ’60s London focuses on the repercussions of the Sexual Revolution and the daunting possibilities of nuclear war, but it also addresses the gaps created between the girls and their mothers during this intense time of social upheaval and change. Ginger’s mother, Natalie (Christina Hendricks), is a housewife and former painter struggling to keep her family together. She and her daughter share the serious, weighty feelings of artists without the means to express themselves. Rosa’s mother, Anoushka (Jodhi May), isn’t present in much of the movie, leaving the impression that she and her daughter are both convicted by flights of romantic fancy.
Nowhere is Rosa’s desire for real, passionate love more evident than in the way she begins to see and approach Ginger’s father. Shortly after the two spend the night at sea in Roland’s boat, Rosa announces that she is writing a letter to Roland. When Ginger scoffs and questions why her best friend would do such a thing, Rosa replies that she feels like she can truly understand his pain. The camera focuses on Rosa’s intense stare as she declares that who she’s writing a letter to isn’t Ginger’s problem anyhow. Confused and upset, Ginger rushes to a jukebox in the pub where the two are sitting. The camera focuses in on her jittery fingers as she punches in her selections and glances shyly at a young man standing nearby.
Then it’s the next morning, and Ginger is laying in bed with a bad hangover. Her mother storms into her room, tersely declaring “you and Rosa!” before pacing back towards the door. Summoning enough bravado to test her boundaries, Ginger insists that she was out drinking because her mom came to school to ask that girls be given lessons in the domestic arts. At the moment that she is attempting to distance herself from her mother’s way of life, Ginger also feels compelled to protect her mother from the truth. Despite the differences between the pair, Ginger senses that she simply can’t share her growing suspicions about Rosa and Roland with her mom. Frustrated, she lashes out and refuses her mother’s advice.
Despite problems at home, the two teens continue their painful pursuit of adulthood. Ginger is introduced to activist Bella (Annette Bening), who encourages her to become more radical and serves as a female role model who is the exact opposite of her own mother. Both girls put distance between themselves and their mothers in their own ways, with Rosa growing increasingly infatuated with Roland as time passes. The tension that the girls’ conflicting desires creates seeps into the film slowly, saturating all of the characters until Cold War clashes between governments and ideologies are mirrored in the personal conflicts of the girls and their parents.
Ginger & Rosa rises above the feel-good nostalgia of so many coming-of-age movies because it handles its tender moments just as well as its more chaotic ones. The story’s Cold War setting lends credence to the pressure the girls feel to find a path in a world very different from their parents’. Those sometimes silly growing pains of teen life gain real importance when placed in relief against the simultaneous threat of nuclear annihilation and promise of increased sexual freedom. That the girls aren’t alone in their struggle with this intense time of social change may not be apparent to the teens, but it is apparent to the audience, who is treated not only to stunning performances by Fanning and Englert but also to the spot-on performances of the well-considered cast.
The DVD release of Ginger & Rosa includes two featurettes, cast interviews, deleted scenes, and audio commentary from writer/director Sally Potter. The ‘Anatomy of a Film’ and audio commentary features stand out among the features, all of which are strong. The ‘Anatomy’ featurette has interactive controls that allow the viewer to choose different aspects of the film to be explored from the point of view of the cast and crew, with production materials from the film included. Sally Potter’s audio commentary offers the perspective of the writer and the director in one neat package. Whether talking about technical decisions, the film’s shooting locations, or the narrative motivations behind each scene, Potter enriches the audience experience and allows an even wider window into Ginger & Rosa.