“Ginger & Rosa”: A special friendship goes nuclear

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Ginger & Rosa” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. PG-13, 1:29, three stars out of four.

Elle Fanning has one of those faces you can’t help but watch. Her expression can become opaque and thoughtful, and then suddenly blossom into a smile that seems so unforced and unexpected that it seems to surprise even her.  She was good in “Somewhere” and even “We Bought A Zoo,” but you almost can’t wait for her to grow up to see what kind of actress she’ll be when she gets older, more complex parts.

She gets her most fully realized role to date in “Ginger & Rosa,” a delicate coming-of-age drama from writer-director Sally Potter. Potter is known for making more experimental and daring films like “Yes”: “Ginger & Rosa” is much more conventional, a finely-observed tale of friendship tested and outgrown.

Ginger (Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) were fated to be friends from the day they were born, when their mothers met in a maternity ward in London in 1945. Both mothers knew their share of disappointment; Rosa’s mother (Jodhi May) raised her children on her own, while Ginger’s mother (Christina Hendricks of “Mad Men”) may as well have; her philosopher husband Roland (Alessandro Nivola), a pacifist and writer, was often too busy chasing after a cause (or a girl he met through the cause) to be a father. He doesn’t even like Ginger calling him “Dad.”

Now it’s 1962, and the girls are inseparable. Potter opens the film with gorgeous images of friendship — perhaps made all the more beautiful because they’re set against the ruins of post-Blitz London. The girls, now teenagers, sneak cigarettes together, shrink their jeans in the tub, hang out with Mod boys in fast cars. At first it seems like Potter is going to make “Ginger & Rosa” a nostalgia trip to adolescence and an England long gone.

But the bond between Ginger and Rosa starts to crack a little. The Cuban Missile Crisis looms, and Ginger starts to become more worried about the threat of nuclear war. That unforced smile vanishes, and she goes to anti-nuke rallies and meetings. Rosa, meanwhile, is sexually maturing much faster than the more tentative Ginger, and begins flirting with the dashing Roland. To everyone’s surprise (including the audience), he reciprocates, and Ginger is forced to accept this development with an air of false sophistication, as if it was natural for her best friend and her father to become romantically involved.

The title of the movie is misleading, because this is really Ginger’s story, and Fanning’s show. She manages the British accent convincingly (her bright orange dye job slightly less so), but is even better at showing the contradictions and complexities of adolescence, careering from confusion to anger, trying to play the part of a world-weary adult while still a trusting child at heart. She has some especially lovely scenes with Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall, who play a gay couple she befriends, and some raw emotional scenes with Hendricks as her mother.

“Ginger & Rosa” flirts with melodrama, especially as the Roland-Rosa relationship plays itself out. But Fanning brings such a groundedness and authenticity to the film’s central role that you stick with her every step of the way.

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