Most coming-of-age stories tackle fears and anxieties, but it’s often in relation to the impending future. In Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa, the future is viewed as less a tangible reality but instead as something that needs to be won. Set in early 1960s Britain, Potter’s narrative acknowledges a sense of isolation associated with youth yet registers on an entirely different level through its evocation of Cold War hysteria. The perpetual fear of nuclear holocaust bubbles under most of Ginger & Rosa’s runtime, allowing its main character to view the unfurling of her family life with a tinge of looming apocalypse. An inventive perspective to adopt, Ginger & Rosa remains a film indebted to its genre roots, in that its dramatic tendencies can at times undercut some of Potter’s nuance.
Ginger (Elle Fanning) is as much a blank canvas as the paper she writes her poetry – often pulled from side to side by her mother, father, and best friend, Rosa (Alice Englert), her identity remains a fluid concept. But as the web of relationships jeopardize her allegiances, Potter wisely implements her Cold War elements as a means of elaborating on Ginger’s futile efforts to stop the unavoidable. Too big for her control, this hopelessness that Potter evokes provides Ginger & Rosa with perpetual unease. Lensed by Andrea Arnold’s (Wuthering Heights, Fish Tank) cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, Ginger & Rosa tackles much of the same thematic (and visual) ground that marked Arnold’s work – sexual awakening, problematic familial structuring, and charismatic yet misleading male role models. Ryan’s ability to realize these moments remains remarkably tender yet never overtly sentimental or nostalgic.
The aforementioned Cold War aspects provide Ginger & Rosa with a new insights, but it’s the film’s rather melodramatic turn in its final act that serve to derail some of the more muted and emotional astute ideas Potter brings. Steady in how she lays her emotional stakes, Potter eventually begins to lose control of her actors. A jarring final act serves to address the bubbling anxieties that plague her characters, but it feels a bit too undercooked and miscalculated. Becoming more an acting exhibition than the more emotionally muted film it strived to be from the onset, the melodrama comes from a place where a steady simmer became a full-out boil. It simply lacks the finesse that Potter exemplified in the earlier portion of her film, where emotional distress, poetic lyricism, and visual imagery coalesced. Potter’s intent may have very well been to reach this sudden conclusion of great melodramatic intensity – Ginger herself can be seen as something of a bomb waiting to explode. And when she does, the whole world enters adulthood with her.