Teenagers do horrible things to each other in the name of their ''ideals.'' But adults do too, which is so much worse. That's the sad truth behind Ginger & Rosa, a touching drama from British art-house filmmaker Sally Potter, who broke through to wider audiences with 1992's Orlando and has now made her most mainstream movie yet.
Set in 1962 London during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the story follows the tenderhearted Ginger (Elle Fanning), who lives with her thwarted-artist mother (Christina Hendricks) and her lefty academic father, Roland (Alessandro Nivola). She spends her days at pacifist marches with her wild best friend, Rosa (Alice Englert), and an older American activist (Annette Bening). Soon the BBC is reporting that the bomb may be dropped any day, and it feels like the end of the world to both girls. But then, when you're in high school, it always does. And you get the sense that even if the Cold War had never happened, Ginger and Rosa would find another cause to get worked up about. Still, Potter has enough compassion for these girls to imply that their lives might really be just as dramatic as they think. In dreamy, color-drenched scenes that look like they're turning into memories right before your eyes, Potter portrays their friendship as a great love-in-wartime romance. The girls smoke each other's cigarettes, iron each other's hair, and crawl into the bathtub together to shrink their jeans. Ginger spies on Rosa's hookup with a boy in an alleyway, looking giggly and curious. Later, she waits, bored and angry, at a bus stop while another boy presses Rosa against the frosted glass. Fanning is heartbreakingly raw in these scenes, her blue eyes widening when Rosa gives her any attention, her shoulders hunching whenever she's ignored. It looks like Rosa might be Ginger's first love so it's all the more devastating when she sleeps with Ginger's dad.
When they first spend the night together, Ginger hears them through the wall. That's also how we learn of the affair, so we can easily sympathize: We're left on the outside with her, and it's worse to imagine what's happening, since Englert's pouty vulnerability and Nivola's take-control cockiness make it easy to picture.
Whether Roland's against-the-grain behavior stems from real political convictions or just the will to act however he wants is hard to say. But Ginger & Rosa also suggests that politics are always self-serving because they come from a personal place. If Ginger's protest marches once seemed naive and unselfish, they soon become an outlet for her rage over this betrayal. ''Can't you be a girl for a moment or two longer?'' a family friend asks Ginger. She can't. Blame her dad, blame the bomb, but it's too late. B+