For a few years there, I would take delight in watching Dakota Fanning, when she was at her tiniest and most precocious, whenever she was in a movie. Despite that fact that she looked like she still had her baby teeth, she always displayed a baffling, self-assured, wise-way-beyond-her-years maturity that was spooky to the point of disturbing.
I often felt embarrassed — and a little weird — admitting in public that one of my favorite movie actresses was a girl who hadn’t reached puberty yet. Now that Fanning has blossomed into womanhood, last seen doing evil-vampire shit in the Twilight movies, her little sister Elle is carrying the fine family tradition of blowing audiences the hell away at a young age in her latest film, Ginger and Rosa.
Covered in blood-red locks, Fanning is Ginger, a British teenager growing up in 1960s London along with her best friend Rosa (Alice Englert). Gals who literally came into this world right next to each other (their moms gave birth a few feet apart from one another), the two girls are inseparable: they hitchhike together, try on clothes together, they even make out with boys together.
They also appear to have similarly dysfunctional home lives. While Rosa’s dad left her mother when she was a kid (something Rosa has long resented), Ginger’s radical, pacifist journalist dad (a pathetically self-righteous Alessandro Nivola) and unfulfilled stay-at-home mom (Christina Hendricks, also rocking an effective British accent) are drifting apart as well. Once her dad finds new living arrangements, Ginger follows suit and moves in with her old man.
Unfortunately, Rosa, practically craving a father figure in her life, also starts cozying up to Ginger’s dad, who doesn’t even put up much of a fight. As you’d expect, things get painfully complicated after that.
Writer-director Sally Potter (Orlando) takes a sly yet harrowing approach in dramatizing the dismantling of a friendship, the impending, certain-to-be-explosive meltdown of a family, and the crippling terror that strikes a child when that happens all at once. With the movie set in the early ‘60s, the threat of nuclear war is a constant reminder in all the characters’ lives. Ginger takes this threat quite seriously, becoming a young, anti-war protester and finding kindred spirits in her gay godparents (Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall) and their American-activist houseguest (Annette Bening). Of course, teenagers treat everything like it’s the end of the world. But, during these times, it seemed like a literal possibility.
And yet Ginger is already going through her very own catastrophic crisis. Ginger tries to keep mum about the just-plain-messed-up things going on between her best friend and her father, knowing the outcome will be more devastating than nuclear annihilation. It won’t be the end of the world, but it’ll be the end of her world.
With Ginger and Rosa, Potter once again documents the usually lonely road a woman takes in finding out who she really is, this time showing it from the perspective of someone who isn’t even a woman yet. Potter’s handheld camera stays transfixed by Fanning, who is just as much a powerful acting presence as her sister was back in the day. Her Ginger is confused and conflicted, sure and unsure of herself — usually at the same time. It takes a special kind of kid to lay out all those emotions and play it so steadily that your heart just goes out to her, especially as she makes you quietly, tearfully feel her pain in a few heart-wrenching scenes.
With characters like Ginger, you hope that she comes out of this a stronger, better person. With young, remarkable actresses like Fanning, you sense that it’s already happened.