Fanning saves powerful but pretentious ‘Ginger & Rosa’


Elle Fanning, left, and Alice Englert stars in “Ginger & Rosa.” (Courtesy photo)

Published: Friday, April 5, 2013 at 4:41 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 5, 2013 at 4:41 p.m.

Growing up is hard. Growing up when your family is disintegrating around you and the threat of nuclear annihilation seems greater than ever is overwhelming.

Facts

‘Ginger & Rosa’

Rated: PG-13
Starring: Elle Fanning, Alice Englert, Christina Hendricks, Alessandro Nivola, Annette Bening
★★★

This is the premise of “Ginger & Rosa,” a new film from Britain written and directed by Sally Potter, a relative unknown on this side of the Atlantic. A complicated, nuanced coming-of-age tale that attempts to juggle several complex topics at once (the sexual revolution of the 1960s, nuclear proliferation, a domestic drama), the movie occasionally flounders under its own weight but is mostly salvaged by a remarkable bevy of performances and strong production values.

After opening with documentary footage of a nuclear explosion and the aftermath of Hiroshima in August 1945, the movie quickly introduces us via montage to the title characters, who were born in 1945 to mothers in adjoining hospital beds in London. Flash forward to 1962, and Ginger (Elle Fanning, younger sister of Dakota) and Rosa (Alice Englert in her first feature role) are inseparable friends. As the tumult of the ’60s swells and the ever-present threat of nuclear war hangs over their lives, the girls throw themselves headlong into the counterculture world, ditching school and familial obligations to protest the bomb, take in the bar/club scene and hook up with fellow rebels in dingy back alleys (don’t worry, it’s all PG-13; we are dealing with underage teens here).

Things get complicated and a plot begins to emerge when Roland (Alessandro Nivola), Ginger’s emotionally distant activist father, separates from her mother, Nat (Christina Hendricks). This ends up being the first in a series of crises for Ginger as her world begins to unravel around her.

This is clearly a project that’s near and dear to Potter’s heart; the lavish cinematography, highly emotional subject matter and her intimate directorial style make that much clear. However, Potter’s attachment to the movie is simultaneously a great strength and a damning weakness; individual vignettes pop, but the dialogue is overwrought and the pacing is a mess. This is particularly evident during the first 20 minutes or so: the scenes all look pretty, but there’s no sense of connectivity or that the movie is going anywhere.

Thankfully, the movie’s stellar cast makes up for most of its shortcomings. Hendricks brings a lot of depth and nuance to what could’ve been a thankless tormented mother/wife role. As Roland, Nivola is equally good at slowly peeling away the layers of a deeply wounded man who uses the cover of intellectualism to justify his selfish ends. Englert ends up being shortchanged a little as Rosa, but she makes the most of her somewhat limited screentime and turns in a noteworthy performance, particularly in her scenes with Fanning. Similarly, Timothy Spall, Oliver Platt and Annette Bening all delight in bit roles as activists in the counterculture movement.

But the dominant force on screen, without question, is Fanning. Even when Potter gives her the most ridiculous, pretentious dialogue (she has one really bad line about “bourgeois death traps”), Fanning’s delivery and expressiveness make her utterly fascinating to watch. As Ginger’s world collapses about her, culminating in a devastating betrayal by Roland and Rosa, Fanning masterfully captures her growing despair and desperation without going overboard on the hysterics.

The trade-off you’re supposed to get in supposed “art house” fare like “Ginger & Rosa” is less reliance on overblown Hollywood spectacle in return for emphasis on human drama. While the movie occasionally trips over itself, there’s enough good stuff to easily justify a recommendation, if only to say you were there to see a star being born in Elle Fanning.

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