Ginger and Rosa, an intense little coming-of-age drama from the British director Sally Potter, begins with three births: The mushroom cloud goes up over Hiroshima, ushering in the nuclear age, and at the same moment two girls are born in London, one fair and one dark, as their mothers clutch at one another from parallel delivery beds.
A few minutes of screen time move us 17 years forward, to 1962. The girls are our title characters, growing up fast friends in the dinginess of postwar Britain, sharing smokes and hitchhiking, making out with boys in alleyways and exasperating their mothers. Ginger, played by Elle Fanning, has a bursting smile and hair like flame, and she wears her intellectual ambitions on her sleeve — she reads T. S. Eliot and Simone de Beauvoir and wants to save the world from nuclear war. (It is the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis.) Rosa, played by Alice Englert, is earthy and intense, with a religious streak and a transparent eagerness for romance.
At first the movie makes you expect a variation on An Education, the art-house hit from several years ago that featured Carey Mulligan as a British schoolgirl seduced by an older businessman. The era is the same, and so is the setup — girls on the verge of womanhood, chafing against their parents, in a fog-bound, still-conservative country on the verge of social revolution.
But whereas An Education was all about forsaking one’s family, at least temporarily, for the promises and temptations of a wider world, in Ginger and Rosa the domestic sphere is the place where the real action happens, and where a girl’s illusions about life and men — men, especially — end up being shattered.
That heroine is Ginger, through whose sea-blue eyes we watch the story unfold. Her family seems working-class at first, but they’re actually bohemians, whose penury goes hand in hand with their radical politics. Her mother (Christina Hendricks of Mad Men, bravely struggling with an English accent) is a painter, or rather a former painter, having given up her art to raise her daughter. Her father, the dashing Roland (Alessandro Nivola), is a pacifist academic who was jailed for conscientious objection during World War II. Their social circle includes two gay “uncles” (Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt) and their American friend, a bluestocking of the old school played by Annette Bening, who tries to take Ginger under her wing.
Theirs is a world where joining an anti-nuclear march seems like a natural part of growing up, and where Roland’s grinning response to his daughter’s activism — “You’re a born radical” — is the highest compliment a parent can pay. But it’s also a world where the buzzwords of radicalism double as justifications for a monstrous kind of narcissism.