Sally Potter's latest observational drama "Ginger & Rosa" explores the intense bond between adolescent girls during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That's an oversimplification, of course, as Potter's characters are so much more than their stock types. But at the core of the film, as the title suggests, is a complicated best friendship that again delves into one of cinema's favorite topics: The mysterious intimacy between teen girls.
Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) have known each other since the day their mothers clasped hands while pushing them out into the world at the same London hospital. Fast forward 16 years, and the two girls are inseparable, despite their obvious differences: Ginger's a sensitive poet anxious about the possibility of nuclear war, while Rosa is a sensual wild girl at heart. Their friendship, however particular to the early '60s London setting and Potter's thorough characterization, follows a pattern familiar in other dramas about super close female best friends.
You don't need a degree in women's studies to notice that the most obvious issue that's addressed in these movies is sexuality. Whether it's overt like in "Heavenly Creatures" when Juliet (Kate Winslet) and Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) "find the joy in this thing called sin" together, or subtler -- as in "Ghost World" when Enid (Thora Birch) becomes attached to the middle-aged Seymour (Steve Buscemi), while Becky (Scarlett Johansson) starts flirting with boys her own age -- there's almost always an overriding element of sexuality in obsessively close female friendships (as depicted in movies).
In "Ginger & Rosa," the two girls spend part of a night snogging boys they just met. Whenever Rosa heats things up with her temporary beau, Ginger – sneaking glances at her friend – does the same. But Ginger isn't as ready to take things horizontal as Rosa, and in the end, it's Rosa's precocious sexuality (and the man she chooses to express it with) that leads to the fracturing of their friendship.
This sexual escalation reminded me of "Thirteen" (still Catherine Hardwicke's best film), when Tracie (Evan Rachel Wood) takes her cues for how far to go with a guy from her vastly more experienced BFF Evie (Nikki Reed). It's as much a voyeuristic act as a personal one, and the more sexually active girl sets the pace for the more virginal one.
Another theme common to this sub-genre of coming-of-age tales is the idea of identity and how easily a teenage girl's sense of self can be caught up in someone else, specifically her best female friend. Ginger needs Rosa to validate her ambition to become a poet, to join her in her decision to become a nuclear disarmament activist – just like Juliet needed Pauline to see her "Fourth World" and eventually convinces Pauline to murder her own mother. These are not the sweet and tender "bosom" friendships of "Anne of Green Gables."
Boys can and do have close friendships, but seldom are they depicted as obsessive about one other person. More often than not, such male relationships are portrayed within a larger "fraternity" (literal or figurative) of guys. There aren't comparable examples to these films with young guys. Movie history is full of these seriously co-dependent girls while boys, for the most part, get a pass. Sure, there are bromances featuring adult men, but it's usually within the context of comedies starring Vince Vaughn (or for the teen set, Jonah Hill) or sports and prep-school flicks where there are several guys, not just two obsessed-with-each other boys.
The movie relationships between adolescent guys, while brotherly, don't generally veer into the intentionally homoerotic or sexual awakening mode (with the refreshing exception of "Perks of Being a Wallflower" or "Chuck & Buck") that the movies about girls do. Even when the guys talk incessantly of having sex or losing their virginity, like in "Superbad" or "American Pie," it's rarely couched in the same intensely emotional context that girls inhabit. I can't imagine Jim, Kevin, Finch and Oz making a suicide pact like Tamsin (Emily Blunt) and Mona (Natalie Press) in "My Summer of Love."
There's no doubt that there's a titillating aspect to movies about girls that get completely wrapped up in each other. And usually, the girls are punished for their closeness – they're forced apart – over a betrayal like in "Ginger & Rosa" – or a guy who chooses one over the other, or a mother who realizes the friendship has long ceased to be healthy. I just wish that there could be more movies where the closeness is celebrated instead of demonized – where it leads to mutual encouragement and empowerment not a dysfunctional mess of promiscuity, violence of statutory rape.
I understand the cinematic fascination with teen girl relationships. It isn't completely off base – the intensity of boy friendships typically fades in adolescence, as the New York Times has noted , while girls need close, personal ties to other girls – so much so that without them girls are for more likely to become suicidal. And, as has been thoroughly researched and debated, women's sexuality is thought to be more fluid than men's, so the physically affectionate nature of girl friendships doesn't happen as clearly with boys. Given all of these factors, it's obvious why filmmakers are more likely to focus on deeply dramatic female friendships than male friendships in coming-of-age films. But there's a lot of room for filmmakers explore the positives of that intimacy and not just focus on the emotionally damaging nature of exclusive best friends.