Elle Fanning's astonishing performance in Ginger & Rosa makes me recall the first time she impressed me, as one of the youthful leads in J.J. Abrams' 2011 summer hit Super 8. All of the young actors were well-cast, but they nevertheless all felt like movie kids, hitting the right notes but not creating characters who would be wholly believable were they to step off the screen in The Purple Rose of Cairo fashion. Enter Fanning, with a naturalistic performance that transcended the artifice of that entertaining sci-fi flick and hinted at greater things to come.
Because Fanning's co-stars in Ginger & Rosa are skilled pros like Annette Bening, Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt, she obviously doesn't mop up the floor with anyone here. Yet the movie belongs to her, and her alone. She stars as Ginger, who, along with her best friend Rosa (Alice Englert), was born around the same time that the bomb was being dropped on Hiroshima. It's now 1962 London, and 17-year-old Ginger continues to live in the shadow of nuclear annihilation, raptly listening to the news and fearful that escalating tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union will result in the end of the world at any moment.
She attends ban-the-bomb marches with her gay neighbors Mark (Spall) and Mark Two (Platt) and a feminist activist (Bening) and largely ignores her depressed mother Natalie (Christina Hendricks), choosing instead to idolize her father Roland (Alessandro Nivola). Roland's a pacifist who claims to always live by his convictions; unfortunately, those convictions include stepping out with other women, and when he and Rosa hook up, it threatens to destroy Ginger as surely as any nuclear explosion.
Sensitively handled by writer-director Sally Potter, Ginger & Rosa begins as a fairly conventional coming-of-age tale about disaffected teens (with a definite Heavenly Creatures vibe about it) before turning into something decidedly darker and more troubling. Clearly worried about the nuclear threat, Ginger nevertheless begins to use her fears as a cover for the pain she feels concerning the unspeakable betrayals committed by her loathsome father and her shallow best friend.
These end-of-the-world metaphors are occasionally laid on too thick, and a character's suicide attempt proves to be a needless attempt to gild the melodramatic lily. Yet despite some narrative missteps and a brief running time (just shy of 90 minutes) that doesn't provide enough opportunities for a stellar supporting cast to strut its stuff, Ginger & Rosa should be seen simply for Fanning's exceptional performance, the sort of revelatory turn that makes us feel as if the next generation of film is in fine hands.