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Supporting actors keep ‘Ginger & Rosa’ grounded

“Ginger & Rosa” is a coming-of-age story set in 1962 London as the Cuban missile crisis is in the news and reports speculate on whether the planet will survive. For the two teenage girls of the title, the looming threat of the Cold War makes both everything and nothing matter.

Born side by side in 1945, as atomic clouds spread over cities in Japan, the girls have been best friends as long as they can remember. Red-haired Ginger (Elle Fanning) and dark-haired Rosa (Alice Englert) share everything with one another, everything but what they want most.

For Ginger, what matters is life. “I prefer the world not to end,” she tells her friend, explaining why they should do something about “the bomb,” and join youth protest groups.

For Rosa, whose father left when she was a child, it is love that will conquer all, “true love, the kind that lasts forever,” and she’d rather go to a club.

Before long, Ginger occupies most of director Sally Potter’s story. While Ginger lives in terror that the planet will explode in a bouquet of mushroom clouds, her own small world – centered on her unhappy mother Nat (Christina Hendricks), her philandering father Roland (Alessandro Nivola) and her love-starved best friend – is falling into pieces.

Fanning is exceptional in portraying the girl’s observant suffering. She sees how Roland’s disregard torments her mother, but still tries to adjust her pacifist principles to his philosophical condemnation of all social constraints – political, sexual and familial. When his conquests extend to Rosa, however, it blasts her beliefs apart. She withdraws into her books and her journals and her poems.

Keeping Ginger and the movie grounded are wonderful performances by Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt as Ginger’s godfathers, and Annette Bening as an American poet (not poetess, she points out) who is staying with them. Caring and unconflicted, they are Ginger’s refuge, where she is listened to, talked to and where she can find her voice.

Potter uses some quirky techniques to enrich her picture: As Ginger’s emotions get more and more intense, the movie’s colors take on an almost Instagram-like quality. And rather than playing Frankie Avalon or even Bob Dylan on the soundtrack, she chooses the jazzy downbeats of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.

It never feels like a “period picture,” always staying in the moment with its young heroine. So we are right there with Ginger when she finds out that, even when the worst seems to have happened, the world doesn’t always end. And that, she learns, it what real poets are made of.

ginger & rosa

Two and a half stars

Starring: Elle Fanning, Alice Englert, Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendricks

Director: Sally Potter

Running time: 100 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for mature, disturbing thematic material involving teen choices – sexuality, drinking, smoking and profanity.

The Lowdown: As the world hovers on the brink of nuclear war in 1962, best friends Ginger and Rosa contend with far more personal fears and dangers.