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Griffith Maloney [Film Festival 10.18.12] drama

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Sally Porter's new film Ginger and Rosa is at times beautiful and profound and at times trite and overblown. It's a simple story that tries for deeper things but often stumbles and seems just a little bit foolish, much like the teenage girls who are its focus. In spite of this there are some charming moments and lovely performances in the film. The vein of teenagers adrift and despondent will probably never run dry and while this film isn't the best example of the genre it contains some beautiful scenes of growing up in a hostile world that are worth seeing.

Set in London around the time of the Cuban missile crisis, Ginger and Rosa follows the divergent paths of two teenage girls who are life-long friends. They are girls on fire, looking for purpose and acknowledgement, petrified of become their mothers, disgusted with the actions of the adults around them, in short pretty typical teenage girls. Ginger, played by Elle Fanning, becomes involved in the burgeoning ban the bomb movement. While Rosa, Alice Englert, begins her own path of self-discovery among the sexual revolution of the 60's. Growing up puts these two friends at odds with each other and the world.

Ginger and Rosa is a story about teenage yearning in the most basic sense. The search for some meaning to your life and the exploration of what it means to interact as an adult in a complex world is not a new idea. Mostly the film succeeds in building quiet moments that encapsulate the feeling of growing up but it stumbles some with awkward characterizations and performances. It is not a particularly well written film and most of its attraction comes from the washed out shots and slow focuses of our young heroines. It is effective in capturing a mood more than presenting a compelling plot, luckily the film is relatively short and the lack of plot depth hardly makes it unwatchable.

From a screenwriting perspective its just hard to write about teenagers, the audience wants purpose driven characters, protagonists who have a direct, identifiable objective. Teenagers almost never have a direct objective, they're in the process of discovering themselves. Ginger feels lost, so the audience feels lost. Because the audience is so familiar with the tropes of the "Coming of Age story" the onus for quality lies on the shoulders of the actors. This is a bit of a mixed bag, the cast is small but not all of them are equal in terms of performance.

The energy in the film comes from Elle Fanning, who is subjected to more dreamy closeups then the rest of the cast combined, and for the most part I found her affective and childishly beautiful. She's the touchstone character for the audience and her experiences as she tries to find something to believe are both painful and encouraging. It's a lovely portrayal of youth in turbulent times and is probably the most honest performance in the movie. She shines particularly brightly in the company of Ginger’s parents who are not as well executed or directed.

Christina Hendricks is horrendously miscast as Ginger's mother, Ms. Hendrick's normally glib and charming tendencies only undermine the typical english mother here. Making her feel the least motherly I’ve ever seen her. Alessandro Nivola who plays Ginger's father Roland is the bigger problem. He performs with such a smarmy, oily quality that I found it hard to muster any sort of empathy for him. This is a serious problem both in performance and writing as Roland is a key character in the film, he represents the adult-child and is an incredibly important sympathetic foil for the other adults in the film. So seeing him just as a creepy failed artist, which is how Nivola plays him, sort of undermines an entire section of the film.

A fantastic Annette Benning makes a few brief appearances as an American poet and protestor and absolutely blows away every other member of the cast. Her presence and attitude is such a pleasure to watch that I found myself wishing the movie had just been about her relationship with Ginger instead of all of the other teen angst that we had to sit through. Her character also serves as a lovely anchor to the Anti-War movement of the film helping to both ground the script and the characters in a realistic world.

This feels like a very personal film for director Sally Porter who would have been 13 in 1962. Those flashes of realism, that I suspect are drawn from personal experience are the strongest parts of the movie. The low rent London apartments, depressingly empty "ban the bomb" rallies, crowded 60's pubs, all feel dragged from the loving memory of Ms. Porter. Ginger and Rosa is at its best when it doesn’t over reach, when it provides honest moments of teenage struggle. These are unfortunately overshadowed in places by the height of family drama, which is raised into such a keening wail in a few scenes that I wished all these supposedly pivotal conversations had taken place off camera.

The themes of typical teenage rebellion are joined by a couple of interesting bedfellows here. The power of ideals is a strong one, with the references to the Peace Movement and talk of moral philosophy and conscientious objection we're treated to a stew of self-defining ideas. This is coupled with the idea of using words to express ourselves. Ginger declares early on that she intends to be a poet and this theme is present throughout the film. There are scenes of clumsy teen poetry and attempts to define the world through words, adults often justify or support their actions through literary reference. It's a touchstone in a world gone mad, the written word as representation of constant ideas, a clever device as teenagers tend to read broadly to help define themselves.

It's a tiny bit ironic that a film about a teen attempting to write poetry, most of which is bad, is weakened most by its writing. If someone who was not as lovely as Elle Fanning had played Ginger I don’t think the movie would’ve survived. Her performance and her sheer captivating presence is what makes this film worth seeing. Most moments with her are tender and delicate and her journey of self discovery is mostly honest and convincing. Not everything goes together well in Ginger and Rosa but it sure is trying its best to be something beautiful and that alone is worth watching.

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