Teenage life is aggravating enough even when your home life is happy and stable, so one can only imagine the stress of having to navigate that minefield after your unstable single mother ups and leaves, charging you with the welfare of your five year old little brother. This is the predicament in which Shola (Bukky Bakray), aka Rocks, finds herself in Rocks, Sarah Gavron’s simply wonderful look at female teenage friendship in London. With the story and script by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson written in conjunction with their cast of young Londoners, it’s a hilarious and authentic journey that never falls into the ‘out of touch’ pitfalls common to the genre.
We first meet Rocks in a happier situation, having breakfast with her mum and little Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) before heading off to school with her best friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali). Gavron immerses us into Rocks’s school and social circle with deft skill, and it’s not long before you feel like you know them well, and the whole lot of them are absolutely hilarious. Their shooting-the-shit conversations cover their family traditions, the teachers they don’t like, and how Hitler ‘needed to fix up’, the instantly familiar mix of idiocy and an occasional blinding flash of wit that defines teenage chat.
All the kids give fantastic performances, and Kissiedu is a youngster almost on a par with the children in The Florida Project, with which Rocks shares some DNA, although it lurches closer to Loachian social-realist sadness than Sean Baker’s film ever did. He starts by saying the Lord’s Prayer in a perfectly not-quite-right way and steals almost every scene he’s in from then on. There’s no artifice present in the acting, and Gavron lets each kid show off their individual skills, whether it’s dancing, rapping, or make-up tutorials.
It’s through putting in all this groundwork that Rocks is able to sustain its story. Mostly heartbreaking and hilarious, there is also frustration to be found in the stubborn, ill-considered decisions Rocks makes in regard to her and Emmanuel’s welfare, but the plot never gets outright annoying. Scared, angry teenagers don’t react sensibly, and you can see the logic in Rocks’s plans, even if they rarely seem to have a long term outcome. It all builds to a joyous yet melancholic ending, in which she displays a moving, tragic maturity that she shouldn’t have had to have learned yet.
Rocks is a remarkably different offering to Gavron’s last film, the rather dry Suffragette, but she proves the perfect fit for this energetic ode to London and female friendship. A fly on the wall style and carefully curated soundtrack immerse us in the city whilst letting us see it through the kids’ eyes. A thoroughly entertaining mix of emotion, humour, and propulsive thrill, Rocks comes highly recommended and deserves to be a breakout hit.