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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Look Back to Anger
by Donald Levit

One of Ginger’s (Elle Fanning) godfathers (Mark and Mark 2, played by Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall) implores her to snap out of her emotional trauma, on the cusp of womanhood with a whole life ahead to live. This, and the final scene that surrounds it, is a jarring note in otherwise spot-on New York Film Festival Ginger & Rosa.

At the press conference, director-writer Sally Potter cited scavenging among personal and friends’ experiences “as much as permissible” but also imagination, for in the 1962 setting she was four years younger than the title protagonists. Male and female buddy movies do not generally deal with teens, though the concept of maturing into adulthood here is not a pure coming-of-age story, rather of individual transition set into and against a national group metamorphosis, as the U.K. was moving from dour angry postwar hardship towards swinging London and social awareness. Thus, DP Robbie Ryan’s handheld mixes memories of blackout and rationing in dim lighting together with dreamlike footage as police wade into anti-nuclear protestors while the wireless broadcasts Cuban missile crisis brinksmanship.

The stars accompanying Potter -- Fanning, Alice Englert, Alessandro Nivola -- exemplified her assertion that, with a little practice on accent, actors’ “nationality is one of the easiest bridges to cross” and that they were selected for their ability to open and display the needed intimacy. That, “uncharted territory,” is best friendship, verging on innocent same-sex crushes, girls’ first deep relationship outside the family.

Just as Hiroshima is entering history books, women in adjacent lying-in-ward beds give birth to red-haired Ginger and brunette Rosa (Englert, Jane Campion’s daughter in her feature début). The two are inseparable from the start and continue so through school and its uniforms, cigarettes, giggles, hitchhiking, girly confidences on a bench against a wall -- Ginger is later to sit there alone -- and adherence to the Bertrand Russell-influenced nascent peace movement.

Equally unifying is their cynicism about their parents, to whom, in their inexperience, they feel superior. In both cases, it is their mothers who suffer the daughters’ arrogant disdain. Rosa’s (Jodhi May, as Anoushka), because the father deserted and, absent, cannot be dismissed. And Ginger’s, (Christina Hendricks, as Natalie) because, a teen herself who did not know how to boil water when she became a mother, she relinquished dreams of painting to be a housewife dependent on her man’s earnings and moods.

SPOILER ALERT

A temptation to vilify that man as the cause of others’ grief is mistaken. Imprisoned during the war for conscientious objection -- also opposed to killing, Mark had entered the ambulance corps as alternative to firing guns -- uncompromising Roland (Nivola) sees issues as black or white. His writing is known to activists, but as a rounded person and real father, even he admits his failures. It is one thing for him to love daughter Ginger, whose real name is Africa, and praise her fledgling poetry and social conscience, but he takes no part in or responsibility for the nitty-gritty of parental discipline. Nor is he amenable to the daily grind of marital sharing when not on his personal extravagance of freedom on a sailboat, so he moves out to share quarters with an acquaintance.

Apart from but side by side with the girls’ relationship, Ginger & Rosa is a study of these dual pulls, that of unfettered individualism that may be selfish, and of submergence in the group that may be conformity. Ginger leaves unhappy home, as well, to move in with her dad, whose insistence she call him by his given name and not “Dad” reflects his aversion to all familial, religious or national ties.

Emotionally religious Rosa, too, becomes a participant in Roland’s sailing outings and in his flat. Her flagging interest in activism, her taking to eye makeup, and what she believes are grown-up womanly feelings, combine to separate the two bosom friends even while they still less comfortably pal around.

Crying often -- not scripted, it was “how [Fanning’s] body reacted, felt deeply and it happened” -- almost soundlessly reading Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” or voicing over her own writing, Ginger is the audience’s entry into this period of adjustment and adaptation for once-imperial nations, for threatened humankind, and for girls emerging into adulthood. As Ginger realizes other adults’ sufferings as well as flaws, she comes to accept and, maybe, forgive. Her world can never again be what it was.

(Released by A24; not rated by MPAA.)


                                                                                                                                                                               
 
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