A few years before A24 became a widely recognised name in film distribution, their second release Ginger and Rosa— from British anarchist director Sally Potter—is a gorgeously crafted coming of age anti-war drama about two close friends living during the Cuban missile crisis.
Ginger (Elle Fanning), a budding poet and activist, is deathly afraid of the bomb wiping out the world, and equally terrified of losing her best friend Rosa (Alice Englert), whom she hardly recognises now that Rosa is more interested in sex than politics. Although it remains Potter’s most mainstream film, and received generally positive reviews when it first premiered, Ginger and Rosa has not become the lasting classic among young cinephiles I thought it would when I first watched it on Netflix aged seventeen: Ginger and Rosa’s age. I love it now as much as I did back then, but I appreciate Potter’s writing and direction more now because I see the way the film shifts from anti-war cinema to a love letter to formative female friendships to a critique of leftists who use their principles to manipulate others, all without ever losing sight of its characters.
Anti-war films are often gruesome in their portrayal of the horrors of bloody conflict, such as Saving Private Ryan or Full Metal Jacket, while other times, they are more satirical in nature, such as Dr. Strangelove, which shed light on the evils of imperialism by making war seem like a ridiculous farce. Of course these kinds of films are significant and hold their own in the anti-war canon, but the time has come for audiences to make space in the genre for new ways to express the idea that war is never the answer, an idea that is just as relevant today as it was in 2012, as it also was during the Cuban missile crisis.
Potter’s approach is to focus on young people’s growing anxieties and the idea that their leaders are not going to save them because all war, whether legal or illegal, is wrong and unnecessary. And although the anti-war side is on the right track, they are not completely clean or innocent of corruption. Ginger’s crippling fear that the world is going to end at the hands of nuclear war before she has the chance to “grow up and do things” reflects similar fears that young people carry with them today about issues such as climate change or the US imperialists aggressively chomping at the bit to start a war with Iran. Her nihilist mantra of “we could all die tomorrow” is reminiscent of a lot of jokes made by young people on the internet these days, who grew up during the economic crash and the climate crisis. In her effort to make a difference, Ginger stays informed, attends ban the bomb meetings and marches, and even spends a night in jail for her beliefs.
Even still, she feels helpless and defeated by the constant stream of bad news on the radio— the 1960s version of constant negative news alerts on your phone. Under all that nihilism lies a deep, vulnerable sadness, which Fanning paints with her uncanny ability to produce a small stream of tears. Her father Roland (Alessandro Nivola), a prominent writer in the British anti-war movement, uses this cynical feeling in order to manipulate the women around him, including Ginger, by righteously using his leftist principles of “autonomous thought, personal truth, and freedom of action” to justify his questionable behaviours.
From the beginning, there are warning signs that Roland— greatly admired by Ginger— is not all that he seems. Anyone who has experienced gaslighting or emotional manipulation will recognise the signs: he butters Ginger up before to make his bad deeds seem like no big deal, he fakes emotional vulnerability to get closer to Rosa, he plays the victim in situations where he has harmed others until he ultimately uses his leftist principles as an excuse to cheat on his depressed wife, Ginger’s mother Natalie (Christina Hendricks brilliantly cast against type). He argues that he is subverting the harmful institution of the nuclear family by having affairs with young girls, then waxes poetic about his brief stint in jail for being a draft dodger. Both Ginger and Rosa are too young, trusting, and inexperienced to identify his behaviours as toxic before it’s too late, and honestly, as a younger viewer, I was too.
Now that I am older, it is easier to spot the signs and to see Roland for what he is a lot earlier in the film, which speaks to the endurance of the film. Bella (Annette Bening), an old family friend and outspoken activist who has definitely seen some shit, calls him out on it: “Oh, how fucking convenient,” she quips to Roland’s claim of fighting against the “tyranny of family life.” Anti-war movements and other leftist spaces are not entirely safe spaces for the naive, and these spaces are strengthened by older activists protecting young activists from wolves in sheeps’ clothing like Roland.
Potter leaves the question of whether the ending of Ginger and Rosa is hopeful or not up to the audience members’ individual analysis. Although Roland’s actions are despicable, the question of Rosa’s culpability still remains; to write her off as a victim or the villain of the situation would be to erase her own agency as a growing young adult who is frustrated at the failure of the traditional family system in her own right. The fact remains that Roland should never have put Rosa in the situation in the first place. When Rosa first apologies to Ginger for her actions, Ginger turns her back, but the final words of the film form a poem of friendship and forgiveness.
Ultimately, cinema’s function is not to teach morals or to take a certain political stance. Instead, Ginger and Rosa starts the imperative conversation about how difficult coming of age is in a world that feels as if it has been doomed before you were born, about what kinds of behaviours we are willing to forgive in a figure because they have “woke” political principles, and about how friendship may be our only hope, despite our shortcomings, temptations, and betrayals.
by Katarina Docalovich
Katarina Docalovich is a recent film school grad, freelance film writer, and filmmaker from Richmond, VA. She started an all women filmmaker’s film festival at her university called “For a Dollar Name a Woman.” Her favourite films include American Honey and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @pawsitivelykat
Categories: Women Film-makers