Ginger & Rosa opens with archival footage of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima—a pretty clear sign that writer-director Sally Potter isn’t thinking small, since her story is about a pair of English teenagers in 1962. Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) are best friends, nearly inseparable, though Ginger has more of an activist bent, while Rosa focuses most of her attention on boys. But a rift develops when Ginger’s constantly philandering father (Alessandro Nivola) allows himself to be seduced by Rosa. It’s almost as if Ginger’s personal life, like the world around her, teeters on the brink of annihilation.
Potter pushes this analogy painfully hard, and what began as a compelling, detailed portrait of female friendship gradually turns into a generic melodrama, replete with angry speeches and sobbing confessions. Worse, the movie is fatally lopsided in two separate ways: First, despite the title, it’s almost entirely about Ginger, with Rosa shoved to the margins the moment she betrays her best friend’s trust; and second, Fanning blows Englert (and everybody else) off the screen, capturing a young girl’s anxiety and confusion with startling directness. As in Somewhere, she does outstanding work with material that’s unworthy of her talent, investing it with far more credibility than it deserves. When she finally gets a role that truly challenges her, it’s going to be more explosive than we can handle.