Ginger & Rosa

The first image in Sally Potter’s aching coming-of-age story “Ginger & Rosa” is the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima in 1945. At that very moment, thousands of miles away in a London hospital, the title characters’ mothers give birth to them. The atomic cloud hangs figuratively over the girls’ lives ever after.

“Ginger & Rosa” isn’t about the Cold War or the arms race, but about the stresses of growing up in a world where those things are a concern. More broadly, it’s about the stresses of growing up in general, and how adolescents absorb the anxieties of the world around them.

In 1962, when the bulk of the film is set, 17-year-old Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) have been inseparable friends all their lives but have begun to take divergent paths. Rosa, raised by an inattentive single mother, is “troubled,” which is how other kids’ parents say they don’t want you hanging out with her. She smokes cigarettes, she wants to find love — or its lustful teenage equivalent — and she isn’t worried about the mounting tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union because she believes it’s all in God’s hands.

Ginger, on the other hand, is a serious girl, the kind who writes poetry and frets about nuclear war. She’s at odds with her frustrated mother (Christina Hendricks) and intellectual-atheist father (Alessandro Nivola), a leftist writer who was a conscientious objector during World War II. As the Cuban Missile Crisis looms, Ginger grows increasingly morbid and fearful. She’s hardly alone. Anxiety about the very real possibility of nuclear war has stirred other young people to action, and Ginger gets involved with them, to her father’s pride.

Elle Fanning is Dakota Fanning’s little sister, but the days of needing to identify her that way are numbered. Not quite 14 when “Ginger & Rosa” was shot, she gives an astonishingly mature performance as a 17-year-old who is growing up fast but not as fast as she thinks she is. Ginger is smart and worldly, yet sweetly naive in certain ways. She’ll sit in on grown-up conversations and then adopt the opinions she hears as her own. She’s eager to be independent, but just as eager to follow the example of adults she admires. Those include her sophisticated gay godfathers, both named Mark (played by Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt), and their friend May (Annette Bening), who provides Ginger with an example of an educated woman who didn’t wind up living a life of domestic servility.

Though Ginger and Rosa are the story’s focus, and Ginger more particularly, writer-director Potter takes care to flesh out the other characters as well, giving them complex worries and motivations. Ginger’s mother had to give up a potential career as an artist when she became a parent, and she burns with dissatisfaction over how things have turned out: her daughter resents her, and her husband cheats on her. Speaking of him, he’s a contradictory moral figure, asserting righteousness over his dedication to pacifism, yet unfaithful to his wife and given to inappropriate relationships with girls far too young for him.

There are shades of “An Education” here, the 2009 dramatic comedy set in the same time and place and also dealing with a teenage girl navigating the perils of adulthood. (That film also had a 17-year-old conducting a relationship with an older man. Was that a “thing” in London in the early 1960s?) But Potter’s film is more intimate, less comedic — and significantly more beautiful, thanks to Robbie Ryan’s lovely cinematography. The complexity of the characters and the simplicity of the story balance out to a rewarding coming-of-age drama for adults.

B (1 hr., 29 min.; PG-13, one F-word, some mature thematic material.)

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