Sunday, March 24, 2013

Ginger & Rosa (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Sally Potter


The two Fanning sisters, Dakota and now Elle, both have seemed to possess a delicate, but occasionally powerful screen presence that seems beyond their young ages. They've both been working since they were young children, and both gave performances during that time that garnered rave notices (Dakota in 2001's I Am Sam, Elle in 2010's Somewhere). Too often, I feel, great child performances are dismissed as terrific direction or editing, feeling that its almost impossible for children to possess the emotional intelligence needed to truly excel at acting. This issue was front and center when Quvenzhane Wallis was nominated for a performance that she performed when she was six years old. Elle Fanning (and her older sister) are no longer small children, but they are still delivering top-rate performances - which adds some interesting fuel to the debate.

But at 14 years old, Elle Fanning is still pretty young and its still somewhat surprising to see the amount of emotional range that she's able to cover on the screen. This makes her practically perfect for the role of Ginger in Sally Potter's newest film. Ginger is to young to really fathom the relational entanglements that swirl around her, but she's mature enough to know that they're wrong and she's intelligent enough to know how pool those emotions in other actions. Taking place during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in early 1960's England, Ginger & Rosa perfectly encapsulates a time of paranoia and misery in a country that still had the memory of the violent, toll-taking horror that was World War II.

The film follows the lifelong friendship between Ginger and Rosa (Alice Englert). They've been friends literally since infancy. Their mothers hand each other's hands when they were both born, and the two girls watched as each other's parents relationships slowly came apart. For Rosa, her father left when she was very young and she was left with a mother who, while working hard to keep the heat on and food on the table, hardly had any time and energy left to look after her daughter. Ginger's parents, though, fought stubbornly to make their marriage work through several hiccups. Her mother, Natalie (Christina Hendricks), is a blue collar woman who gave up her dreams of painting to raise Ginger. She's nearly always at wits with Ginger's father Roland (Alessandro Nivola), who's charm can't be denied, but who's political idealism and philosophical pontification does a good job at keeping his wife and daughter at a distance.

Roland's behavior alienates Natalie routinely, but it only entices Ginger's inner rebel as she begins to prefer Roland's freewheeling pacifism to Natalie's stern, disciplinary need for control. This becomes even more true when Ginger begins to fall under the defiant influence of Rosa who is quickly becoming a disobedient child as she reaches her teenage years. Ginger looks up to Rosa's carefree behavior, a kind of behavior that her father seems to encourage (again, at the expense of Natalie), if only because he never dissuades her from it. But while Ginger seems wise far beyond her years, there are certain things that she's exposed to by first Rosa, and later by Roland, that seem far out of the realm of things a girl of her age should have to see and hear. And as her confusion grows and her emotions swirl, she comes close to reaching a point that will change her relationship with Rosa and Roland forever.

Looming over everything is the threat of the bomb. The film takes place in 1962, when every day, the threat of total oblivion via nuclear holocaust seemed like a very real personality, especially as the US and the USSR volleyed ominous threats, each side equipped with enough energy to destroy the world ten times over. This was before Kubrick was even thinking about poking fun with Dr. Strangelove, and before the pop of the British Invasion came to take people's minds off of things. Times were gloomy. Being born in 1989, I know close to nothing about what it would've been like to live through those times, especially in England. But I must say, I don't think I've ever seen a film do a better job of making me feel like I had been there.

The film is directed by Sally Potter, a filmmaker with a terrific, artful eye who has worked well in several experimental films, including Rage and Orlando (in which Tilda Swinton plays the lead character, who lives for a century - and half of it as a man). Ginger & Rosa may be the closest thing she'll ever come to a commercial narrative, but even this film debunks a lot of the normative details of most Hollywood fare. There's a particular attention to detail here, as the clothing, the music, even the way the characters happen to say their lines, seems to harken a more melancholy time. 1962 England must have really been a time when everyone was on the defensive, and Potter visualizes through a teenager's eyes with such a clarity that its striking.

But back to Elle Fanning, who the brilliance of someone who knows exactly what the director wants from the character (ie, a trait that's usually argued children don't have). This is probably the most challenging role that either Fanning sister has attempted, and it seems almost impossible for a young girl to encompass the precociousness and insecurity of that age while their going through it. But Fanning seems to have it down to a science, knowing the exact rhythm that this character needs. Elle is a lot more gentle than Dakota is, and I don't think the dynamic film would have worked without Elle's great work. Add to that, stellar supporting performances from Hendricks, Nivola, as well as Timothy Spall, as an intellectual friend of the family, and Ginger & Rosa gets the most out of its terrific ensemble.

Ginger & Rosa was given a one-night qualifying opening in 2012. This is a puzzling practice used by certain studios with the hope to get Oscar buzz for their smaller films. It rarely works, but I guess that the few times that it actually does makes it worth all the trouble. All things considered, this essentially a 2013 film since it didn't get a proper release till the 15th of this month. And if we're counting it that way, this is probably the best film one can see in this very young year. Its alarming and vibrant, filled with smart, engrossing performances. Its use of period to push forward the narrative is excellent, and further rises Sally Potter as one of the best among her cinematic peers. This is not a film for everyone, but in its execution, its near perfect.

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