IN LATIN, THE words for friend (“amicus”) and lover (“amans”) are derived from the same root – “amo,” which is to love. In Sally Potter’s “Ginger and Rosa,” a film about the highs and lows of female friendship, there is that same slippage between friendship and love. Elle Fanning (“Somewhere”) and Alice Englert play the title roles in this sensitive, intelligent film set in London in 1962. The adults around them are up in arms about nuclear arms during the anxious days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. There’s the commanding Christina Hendricks as Ginger’s mother Natalie and Jodhi May as Rosa’s mother Anoushka. They met in a maternity ward during World War II and their daughters have been besties ever since. They share a bathtub and examine each other’s underwear like water-nymphs; they discuss existentialist philosophy with Ginger quering “Do you think Simone de Beauvoir has a bubbly personality?” and “Do you think there’s a ‘forever’?”
But is there really such thing as a B.F.F.? Sexuality, integral to Potter’s coming-of-age tale, has the potential to ruin everything between them and Rosa’s sexual relationship with Ginger’s handsome father Roland (Alessandro Nivola) drives an understandable wedge. There’s an excruciating scene on a boat – and we feel Ginger’s agony because of Fanning’s precise performance (not to mention her dead-on British accent) – in which Ginger can hear Roland and Rosa’s lovemaking in a room next door. She presses a pillow to her ears to deaden the sounds of sex and betrayal. The secret affair is another ticking time bomb and the circle of activists and artists that surround her – her gay godfathers (Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall) and Annette Benning as their feminist gal-pal – threaten to find out that Roland is sleeping with his daughter’s lifelong friend.
Political liberals on film are usually portrayed as sexually incontinent, so are college professors (i.e. “The Squid and the Whale,” “Wonder Boys,” “The Life of David Gale,” “Smart People” – okay, I’ll stop there). According to the movies, our beliefs in love, reform and pacifism must infuse a sex life that knows no bounds. Roland fits this stereotype to a T – “I’m not sure I’m father material,” he under-states – and we want to see him found out. The film’s resolution is rushed and its pace overall plodding. Roland tells Ginger “You were born radical,” but “Ginger & Rosa” ends on a fairly conservative note with Ginger having learned one of life’s hardest lines: eros trumps philia every time. This must be what The Smiths were getting at, in “Ask” from 1986, when Morrissey sang: “If it’s not love then it’s the bomb that will bring us together.”