In Ginger & Rosa, British director Sally Potter delivers a story that relies as much on character as on burnish and style.
Putting aside the dizzying style of movies such as Yes and Orlando -- the director lends her considerable talents to a complex coming-of-age story that's bolstered by its political backdrop (the world trembles in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis) and its principal performance, an open-hearted look at troubled adolescence from the gifted Elle Fanning.
Fanning allows us to peek behind the walls of adolescence, to see a girl who's struggling with a boatload of issues.
No point being coy: Fanning's Ginger must come to grips with the fact that her iconoclastic father (Alesandro Nivola) refuses (in nearly every way) to conform to the contours of parenthood.
Nivola's Roland seems to regard fatherhood as a socially imposed inconvenience. He became a conscientious objector during World War II and went to prison. Now, he tries to encourage every spark of radicalism he sees in Ginger. As played by Nivola, Roland comes across as sincere -- if keenly lacking in self-awareness.
It's hardly surprising that Roland doesn't get along with Ginger's beleaguered mother, nicely played by Christina Hendricks of Mad Men fame. She's the one who has had to hold down the fort while Roland lives by principle.
In the early going, it seems as if the story is going to focus solely on the friendship between Ginger and Rosa (a convincing Alice Englert). The girls both were born in 1945, and their mothers went into labor at the same time.
They're bonded British babies in the age that began with the explosion of nuclear bombs in Japan, an event Potter uses -- somewhat portentously -- to start the movie.
Fanning and Englert play teen-agers who are forced to think about the seriousness of the world's situation while trying to navigate choppy adolescent waters. At one point, they soak in a bathtub together, reading tabloids and trying to shrink their jeans into form-fitting tightness. Ginger fancies herself a poet. Rosa's less inhibited, more of a free-spirit.
Both girls essentially are rudderless, but they deal with their drift in different ways. Ginger seeks solace from her mother's gay friends (Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt), a couple that's visited by a staunchly political American buddy (Annette Bening).
Absent a father in her life -- he split long ago -- Rosa becomes infatuated with Ginger's dad to a disastrous and disturbing degree.
Roland moves out of the house he shares with Hendrick's Natalie and sets up shop in a garret. He never seems to understand that his devotion to principle masks a stunning level of irresponsibility.
All of this builds to the inevitable dramatic blow-up, which hits like that early-picture nuclear explosion, a histrionic blast set off by the conflicts Potter implants in her story.
It's difficult not to wonder whether Potter's screenplay hasn't put a little too much on both its and Ginger's plates. The threat of global annihilation coupled with a host of daddy issues suggests nothing if not an over-reach. But a strong cast keeps Ginger & Rosa from losing its moorings, and Fanning gives the movie an emotional life so credible, it's safe to call it a rarity.