11/09/2012 04:42 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2013

AFI Review: The Personal War of Ginger and Rosa

Ginger and Rosa begins with an image of the spreading mushroom cloud detonation over Hiroshima in 1945. It ends with a confined familial implosion in 1962 London. The 17 years in between both situations are the ages of Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert); both were born on the same day in 1945 and have not separated since.

Ginger is more reserved and hesitant than her counterpart, who is game for youthful dalliances; Ginger tags along with Rosa as Rosa searches for male attention, often finding it by hitch-hiking and smoking. She adores her father (Alessandro Nivola) who lives by his own principals as a pacifist and societal rule-breaker who was once jailed as a conscientious objector during World War II. Indeed her father, after indoctrinating her on the falsities of religion, tells her that as an authority figure (her father), she shouldn't listen to him or any authority. Ginger responds to this and to many other statements by Rosa and her godfathers (Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt) by smiling and saying, "good point." She is a listener, attempting to mold herself and willing to be molded. She desires to be a poet, but lacks a personal voice. The only person that she doesn't listen to, as teenager daughters often do, is her mother (Christina Hendricks) who gave birth to her as a teenager, gave up painting and is now subservient to her husband's creed of his own personal freedom.

After hearing a radio broadcast about the missile standoff between the USSR and the USA, Ginger becomes increasingly worried about a nuclear holocaust and the end of the world. She takes Rosa to meetings to ban the bomb and becomes obsessed with the cause. The thought of the world ending becomes all consuming, but is overlaid with a series of situations that threatens her friendship with Rosa, while her own family is falling apart. Ginger is a pacifist in her own life, unable to stand up to her friend, or her father -- the idealists -- and instead stands up to her mother. Rosa and her father are the two trusted and revered people who she looked to for growth and their actions bottle up so much hurt in Ginger that concern over the bomb is her outlet. Her activism is her safe haven from her increasingly disturbing family life, creating a bomb that will go off inside her. When it finally does (and it's painful that it doesn't happen sooner), Fanning is a revelation.

Writer/director Sally Potter (director of the luminous films Orlando and Yes) has switched the shift of what we are used to for films set in the 1960s from personal and sexual enlightenment to stone-still disillusionment. The beginning of the film feels like it could be that '60s youth rebellion picture, as Rosa chain smokes (and tries to teach Ginger), gets frisky with men in alleys (and teaches Ginger how to kiss) and Ginger goes to disarmament meetings. It has the coming of age foundation where coming of age comes through risk, but instead twists it to somewhere a little more interesting, where the coming of age occurs after disregarding her father's lectures of pacifism that has stifled her own grown.

There are missteps that keep Ginger and Rosa in the box of a good, instead of a great melodrama. Her godfathers have an American activist friend, Bella (Annette Bening), whose purpose of an extended visit is never explained, but it is awfully convenient as an outspoken, outsider viewpoint. Bella is delighted by Ginger's commitment to the arms cause, and takes offense when a family member calls her a "poetess." In a movie full of mouthpieces (again, Ginger's resigned "good point" comments), Bening's is the most obvious and less defined. Similarly Nivola, an engaging presence for the first two acts, ends the film on two clunky moments defending his principals at an indefensible moment and asking Ginger for forgiveness. Most of these deficiencies occur in the final act, but the final act awards us with beautifully performed, wholly cathartic moment from Fanning that actually creates the payoff and exposes the deficiencies of the ending; her performance is so strong, that when it is interrupted by Nivola's self-defense after being taken to task by Bening, Platt and Spall, the interruption is a disservice: Ginger is finally making her own good points.

Ginger and Rosa played on Wednesday, November 7th and Thursday, November 8th as part of the AFI Film Festival.