It’s interesting that “Ginger & Rosa” is opening the same weekend as “On the Road.” Both films take place at roughly the same time, and both deal with a personal transformation that coincides with something bigger breaking apart and being redefined. Of the two films, “Ginger & Rosa” is by far the most revelatory, an intimate but utterly universal portrayal of a girl’s coming-of-age in the midst of social turmoil and upheaval. In the 1960s, the phrase “the personal is political” became a familiar shibboleth; here, it just as easily pertains to a teenager as she grows into her own power and grapples with the end of worlds writ large and small.
Elle Fanning plays Ginger, who as a 17-year-old in 1962 London is still inseparable from Rosa (Alice Englert), her best friend since birth. They do everything together, from shrinking their blue jeans in the bathtub and ironing their hair to experimenting with cigarettes and the occasional kiss from a boy; they even dress alike for their first meeting of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, an obsession of Ginger, who has grown up in the shadow of atomic annihilation.
She’s encouraged in her tentative activism by her father, Roland (Alessandro Nivola), a pacifist professor, as well as her godfathers, a gay couple played by Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt with warm, understated brio. Her mother, Natalie (Christina Hendricks), is more wary, especially when it comes to Rosa, whom she suspects of being troubled. And indeed, as “Ginger & Rosa” unfolds, the girls face a series of ruptures, the first having to do with Ginger’s embrace of politics while Rosa drifts toward the church.
The dynamics between the two become exponentially more complicated, as Ginger experiences a series of betrayals on the part of those she loves most. As “Ginger & Rosa’s” confused, frightened and outraged protagonist, Fanning delivers a quietly bravura performance of volcanic intensity. She’s admittedly surrounded by magnificent supporting turns — Nivola is especially good as the classically charismatic Horizontal Man of legend and lore. But this is Fanning’s movie through and through, as her character tries to process her burgeoning sense of terror and disappointment in the structures and people around her.
Written and directed by the great Sally Potter, “Ginger & Rosa” dispenses with the filmmaker’s self-conscious flourishes, instead putting the story forth with simple, stylized directness.
Suffused with enormous compassion for the young woman at its center, this parable of awakenings shares some DNA with the art house hit “An Education” but has little of that movie’s nods to cozy humor and happy endings. As an affectionate but tough meditation on how political and religious dogma can blot out and distort basic human compassion, “Ginger & Rosa” simultaneously evokes its era and widens into a transcendent portrayal of youthful idealism and hard-won wisdom.
In Potter’s assured, caring hands, “the personal is political” assumes newfound breadth, depth and surprising emotional poignancy. It may be a slogan, but here it’s also a cry from the heart.
PG-13. At Landmark E Street Cinema. Contains profanity and mature, disturbing thematic material involving sexuality, drinking and smoking. 89 minutes.