By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
The adventurous British director Sally Potter has staked out a place for herself as an experimental moviemaker who keeps a foot in the mainstream.
In “Orlando,” she re-imagined a Virginia Woolf novel with a male protagonist played by the actress Tilda Swinton, and in “Yes,” she played out a political romance in Shakespearian-style verse.
One can salute Potter’s spirit, although I don’t really like her movies very much. The breaking point was “The Tango Lesson,” in which she cast herself in the lead role, with dismal results.
It’s always nice to be surprised, and her new movie, “Ginger &Rosa,” turns out to be a very good film indeed. Here Potter works in a familiar storytelling form, the coming-of-age memoir, but crafts it with enough avant garde touches that the result is moving and engrossing.
The timing is the early 1960s in London, where two teenage girls embody the confusion of their age, and maybe of the era. Ginger and Rosa play around with boys and other forbidden pastimes, as the world inches toward a nuclear showdown that begins to seem inevitable.
Ginger is our protagonist, and she’s especially challenged by her parents and their resentments: Her father (Alessandro Nivola) is a professor who lives by his nonconformist credo and her mother (Christina Hendricks) still nourishes the disappointment of giving up her painting when she got pregnant very young.
If Ginger is obliged to battle with her parents, she finds some solace in her gay godfathers (Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt), as well as an aunt (Annette Bening) who endorses Ginger’s fervor in joining the ban-the-Bomb movement.
It’s to Potter’s credit that these characters are viewed in a kind of flat, nonjudgmental light, even when they do the wrong thing. Nivola never plays his role as a villain, even when he’s at his worst, and Hendricks brings her steady gaze as well (though it’s hard to adjust to the “Mad Men” actress with a British accent).
One particular plot turn is melodramatic, but Potter weaves it into the action in such a way that it stays significant without becoming the whole show. In all that, and in the sketching of friendship that burns intimate and alienated by turns, the film feels very accurate to its young characters’ point of view.
As Ginger and Rosa, Potter cast Elle Fanning (the impressive younger sister of Dakota) and newcomer Alice Englert. The contrast between them begins with their coloring — Ginger is red-headed, Rosa is dark — and Rosa seems the more lost and searching, though we will never know entirely why.
Englert, who recently starred in “Beautiful Creatures,” is the daughter of filmmaker Jane Campion, and looks suspiciously like a rising star.
The era is brought back in spare strokes that don’t call attention to themselves; although it covers territory similar to “An Education,” our approach here is smaller-scaled, more microcosmic. Meet it on that level, and “Ginger &Rosa” offers some convincing hothouse atmosphere.
“Ginger &Rosa” (3½ stars)
In the early 1960s in Britain, two teenage friends (Elle Fanning and Alice Englert) weather the difficulties of boys, parents, and other confusing issues. Director Sally Potter gives just enough distinctive touches to this nonjudgmental tale to make it moving and authentic.
Rated: RG-13 for drinking, smoking, language, sexuality.
Showing: SIFF Uptown