Sally Potter likes to mess around with form and narrative. Her Orlando (1992) adapted the Virginia Woolf novel, with Tilda Swinton as the Elizabethan cavalier of the title who lives for centuries and changes genders along the way. Her last two films, Yes (2004) and Rage (2009), were, respectively, written in iambic pentameter and shot on a cell phone. With her latest, though, she drops the fancy stuff and confronts her themes head-on. In part autobiographical, this may be her most conventional film, and it is also her most powerful and challenging.
It's so conventional, in fact, that it can be compared to other films. It resembles An Education (2009), and especially Sandra Goldbacher's exceptional bildungsroman about two best friends growing up, Me Without You (2001). Unlike the latter, however, Potter's film doesn't span decades, but focuses on one crucial period in the relationship between the title pair of pals.
In the sooty, pre–British Invasion London of 1962, Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) have gotten a head start on the counterculture to come. Ginger's father, Roland (Alessandro Nivola), is a pacifist and a professor, and the family's best friends include a hip gay couple — Mark One (Timothy Spall) and Mark Two (Oliver Platt) — and Bella (Annette Bening), a prickly feminist poet.
Rosa's alternative lifestyle, however, comes more from necessity than choice; her single mother has to work, leaving Rosa free to smoke, kiss boys, and ponder eternal love. And Ginger's circumstances don't bear close scrutiny. Her mother, once a painter, now cooks and cleans and tolerates not just Roland's infidelities with students, but his pseudo-philosophical self-justifications as well.
Meanwhile, Doomsday approaches. The Cuban Missile Crisis overshadows these petty squabbles, at least for Ginger. Encouraged by her bemused father, and more earnestly by "the Marks" and Bella, she throws herself into political activism, marching in peace rallies and writing poems about the Bomb. But Rosa has drifted to other interests, which threaten catastrophe closer to home; as the world teeters on the brink, so too does the pair's friendship.
It sounds schematic, but Potter's assured eye (her style evokes the British New Wave of the '60s) and the masterful performances (Fanning, in particular, steals every scene she's in) keep the film honest. Toward the end it tends more to a whimper than a bang (Ginger reads The Waste Land at bedtime), but few other films have depicted so acutely the crushing disillusionment and infinite hope of growing up.