What is it about those damn Fanning sisters that makes them such amazing actresses to watch?
For a few years there, I would take delight in watching Dakota Fanning, when she was at her tiniest and most precocious, whenever she was in a movie. Despite the fact that she looked like she still had her baby teeth, she always displayed a baffling, self-assured, wise-way-beyond-her-years maturity that was spooky to the point of disturbing. I often felt embarrassed—and a little weird—admitting in public that one of my favorite movie actresses was a girl who hadn't reached puberty yet.
Now that Fanning has become a grown-up actress, last seen doing evil-vampire shit in those Twilight movies, her younger sister Elle is carrying the fine family precocious-girl tradition in Ginger & Rosa.
Covered in blood-red locks, Fanning is the Ginger of the title, a teenager growing up in 1960s London, along with her best friend Rosa (Alice Englert). Gals who literally came into this world right next to each other (their moms gave birth a few feet apart from one another), the two girls are inseparable: They hitchhike together, try on clothes together, they even make out with boys together.
They also appear to have similar, dysfunctional home lives. While Rosa's dad left her mother when she was a kid, Ginger's radical, pacifist, journalist dad (a pathetically self-righteous Alessandro Nivola) and unfulfilled, stay-at-home mom (Christina Hendricks, rocking an effective British accent) are drifting apart as well. Once her dad finds new living arrangements, Ginger follows suit and moves in with her old man. Unfortunately, the fatherless Rosa also starts cozying up to Ginger's dad, who doesn't even put up much of a fight. As you'd expect, things get painfully complicated after that.
Writer/director Sally Potter (Orlando) takes a sly yet harrowing approach in dramatizing the dismantling of a friendship, the impending, certain-to-be-explosive meltdown of a family, and the crippling terror that strikes a child when that happens all at once. With the movie set in the early '60s, the threat of nuclear war is a constant reminder in all the characters' lives. Ginger takes this threat quite seriously, becoming a young anti-war protester and finding kindred spirits in her gay godparents (Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall) and their American-activist houseguest (Annette Bening). Of course, teenagers treat everything like it's the end of the world. But, during these times, it seems like a literal possibility.
With Ginger & Rosa, Potter once again documents the usually lonely road a woman takes in finding out who she really is, this time showing it from the perspective of someone who isn't even a woman yet. Potter's handheld camera moves are always fixated on Fanning. Her Ginger is confused and conflicted, both sure and unsure of herself—usually at the same time. It takes a special kind of kid to lay out all those emotions and play it so steadily that your heart just goes out to her, especially as she makes you quietly, tearfully feel her pain in a few heart-wrenching scenes. While we hope Ginger comes out of this a stronger, better person, we know it's already happened with the remarkable Fanning.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Fanning the flames."