“Did you know the wounds from adolescence can take years to heal?” In the context of Clueless, this is a joke, Alicia Silverstone’s Cher justifying the makeover of one of her minions. Yet somehow over the years that line has stuck with me. That’s not to say I’m sentimental about childhood, but the transformation of adolescence is like a dark art: we are all tossed into the cauldron, and who knows how we’ll emerge from the hormonal stew? Bright, sociable children can reveal themselves to be delicate souls, easily crushed like glass. With all this drama, adolescence is a natural subject for films, but too often they descend into maudlin morality tales. It takes a witchy eye to see the toil and trouble clearly, and to externalize the internal combustion in cinematic terms. What is it with England? Is there something caustic in the water? With Fish Tank and then Wuthering Heights, English director Andrea Arnold gave us two primal experiences of girls forced abruptly into adulthood. To those, I would add Sally Potter’s latest film Ginger & Rosa, in which she too tackles the brinksmanship of adolescence with grace and insight.
Ginger & Rosa sets its agenda from the opening shot, paralleling the birth of its heroines with footage of the bombing of Hiroshima. A montage shows the girls growing up side by side, taking us efficiently into their teenage future. It’s London in 1962, and at first blush, there’s a sweet innocence to the ways the girls are beginning to absorb the 60s. Potter gives us an almost wordless introduction to their intimacy, the handheld camera holding close to their faces. These impressionistic, soft-focus shots perfectly capture the distressingly erotic nature of their beauty (no wonder: the film was shot by Arnold’s regular DP Robbie Ryan). The giggling girls with tangled, knotty hair are the same young women stealing drags of cigarettes and kisses in dark alleys. There’s a manic nature to this shifting from girl to woman and back again that’s typical for teenagers, but it soon becomes clear that Rosa is less ambiguous in her pursuits.
Rosa (played by director Jane Campion’s daughter Alice Englert) has grown into a dark beauty, the classic bad influence who is increasingly aware of her seductive power. Ginger (played by Elle Fanning), aptly named after her flame of red hair, may be fervently idealistic about her political beliefs, but is more circumspect about men. The film lingers somewhat on both Rosa’s father’s abandonment of his family and Rosa’s dismissive attitude towards her weary, hardworking mother Anoushka (Jodhi May). In contrast, Ginger’s parents Nat (Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks) and Roland (Alessandro Nivola) are still together, but just barely. Roland is an intellectual and a writer, but the narcissistic kind who is more dedicated to his liberal beliefs than to his family (and even those are negotiable to suit his needs). Still, he has succeeded in passing on a sense of seriousness and purpose to Ginger, who is an aspiring poet and peace activist especially concerned about the looming threat of nuclear war. This serves a handy function throughout the film as a rather obvious and potent metaphor for the destruction of Ginger’s innocence. Although this narrative device is a bit clunky, Potter is extremely effective at building Ginger’s sense of terror and dread of an unnameable fear. That she transfers her feverish emotions to political activism fits both her age and her character.
Due credit should go to Elle Fanning, who gives an unbelievable (unjustly overlooked) performance as Ginger. She begins the film aligned with Rosa, a bond nicely mirrored by the synchronicity of their matching outfits. They do everything together — bathe in the tub to shrink their blue jeans, stay out late, hitch rides from strangers — though, all along, they are driven by a different understanding of power. Ginger ignores Rosa’s bold seductions as long as it only concerns strangers; it’s when Rosa sets her sights on Roland when things fall apart. Ginger wants to be her father, while Rosa wants to bed him.
That Roland’s infidelity hurts his daughter is a given, but I really appreciate how seriously Potter takes Rosa’s betrayal of Ginger. So contemptuous of women who fail to “keep their men,” Rosa clings to the naive belief that she is somehow different than those women, instead of just younger. Watching the tremors of emotion play across Ginger’s face, her godfather Mark plaintively asks her, “Can’t you be a girl for a moment or two longer?” But Rosa and Roland have taken that from her. There’s the sense that Ginger’s fury and sadness are political as well as personal. This is underscored by the fact that the inevitable confrontation, somewhat of an overwrought misstep in a film otherwise invested in subtlety, plays out against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis. We hear John F. Kennedy on the radio, defiantly declaring the “one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission.” Taken with a feminist slant, this could be Ginger’s credo.