Directed by Sarah Gavron.
Starring Bukky Bakray, D’angelou Osei Kissiedu, Kosar Ali, Shaneigha-Monik Greyson, Tawheda Begum, Ruby Stokes and Sarah Niles.
When her mother disappears without warning, a teenage girl and her younger brother take to the streets in order to avoid the care system.
One of the bright spots of this year’s lack of major blockbusters has been the chance for very different movies to take up the spotlight. Often, those films have been female-led stories, with a refreshing foregrounding of working class protagonists in decidedly British movies like Lynn + Lucy, Perfect 10 and How to Build a Girl. Sarah Gavron’s naturalistic, powerful coming-of-age drama Rocks is absolutely the pick of the bunch.
Cast as part of a broad hunt through the schools of Hackney, 16-year-old Bukky Bakray excels as the titular teenager, living in a flat with her mother and younger brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu). She returns from school one day to a note from her mum, who has taken off – not for the first time – leaving the kids to fend for themselves, with a small amount of money to keep them going. When her absence becomes prolonged and a neighbour alerts social services, Rocks flees for a life of friends’ sofas and hotel rooms in order to avoid falling into the care system.
First and foremost, Rocks is a movie about divisions – the gap between those who have the privilege of implicit trust in the systems designed to protect them and those who have a justifiable fear of those same systems. Without the script – penned by British-Nigerian playwright Theresa Ikoko and TV scribe Claire Wilson – ever spelling it out, it’s clear that Rocks is immediately terrified by the arrival of social services. She knows there’s a risk she and her brother will be separated and the nuance of the writing forces the audience to feel that intense fear. Notably, the division is more intersectional than it is simply based on ethnicity or gender, delivering a very real take on the social and economic melting pot of London.
Bakray and Kissiedu are tremendous in the central roles. Rocks is no surly teenager in need of a spate of growing up; she’s a fully-formed young woman with her head screwed on and aspirations of becoming a make-up artist. The film’s loose, semi-improvised style enables the cast to bring their own personality to the characters. Scenes set within the school, in particular, crackle with the energy of a fly-on-the-wall documentary, whether they’re having a frank discussion about cultural identity and Adolf Hitler (“my guy needs to fix up”) or expressing themselves amid an energetic dance class.
It’s Bakray’s job to anchor the movie and she does so with quiet power, moving with certainty from place to place despite the apparently out of control nature of her predicament and concealing her turmoil from her brother. Kissiedu, meanwhile, is blessed with tremendous comic timing. When the electricity in their flat is switched off due to non-payment, he barely misses a beat before volunteering that “maybe I could do a sponsored walk” – a tension-puncturing moment of comic, childlike innocence.
Rather than keeping the narrative pedal pressed to the floor, Gavron – whose last film was the underrated Suffragette – allows the movie to wander and take in strange narrative languors that only serve to deepen the character’s further. Rocks’ relationship with best mate Sumaya (Kosar Ali) serves as a microcosm for the movie’s central thesis about the complexities of privilege and the ways in which stark inequalities – whether social, financial or familial – can strain interpersonal relationships and communities as a whole.
Despite the serious issues it handles and the often heart-breaking developments of the story, Rocks embraces lightness of tone above all else. Its viewpoint is optimistic about the power of friendship and the fundamental goodness of people, even in its depiction of a family in disarray and a young woman adrift in a world that seems to have few safety nets to catch her if she falls. It’s as enjoyable as it is powerful and feels organic in its portrayal of Britain at its most delightfully multi-cultural. Ikoko, Wilson and Gavron – along with their exceptional cast – have crafted a true British gem.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.