Despite the corona-related delay of its release, Rocks is well worth the wait, brimming with fresh humour and drama that cuts to the core of contemporary teenage girlhood. Shola ‘Rocks’ (acted exquisitely by Bukky Bakray), comes home from school one day to find her mum gone and a note instructing her to take care of her younger brother. Growing increasingly desperate for money and accommodation, she turns to her group of lovably rowdy friends, including strikingly perceptive best friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali), and tries to work out how to survive.
While other similarly-set films, especially those by white, wealthy directors, fall into racist “missing dad, gangs, drugs” stereotypes, head-writer Theresa Ikoko’s script rings true to the strength of the Black and Brown sisterhood that makes up the city, and the real people who live there. The visuals are a love letter to the best parts of London, the streets away from the city bankers and over-priced chain coffee shops, where wings and chips are still £1.50 and the corner shop pavement is littered with empty cartons of black grape KA. The soundtrack covers the best of fiery anthems from contemporary Black female musicians, the tunes you hear blasted from the back of the bus on tinny phone speakers, including Little Simz and Ray BLK.
The story is “so much bigger than us, so much bigger than what you see on screen.”
In a similar way to films such as Skate Kitchen (2018) and Bande de Filles (2014), the chemistry between the characters is electric and un-fakeable. Bakray, Ali, and the rest of the young cast, inhabit their roles so vibrantly and with such fluent emotion it is a real surprise to discover that they are first-time actors. D'angelou Osei Kissiedu as Rocks’ brother is as endearingly annoying and randomly funny as only six-year olds can be, reciting a ‘remix’ of the Lord’s Prayer or choking on popping candy.
The film’s energising authenticity partly stems from the collaborative nature of its creation. Director Sarah Gavron researched and cast the film from actual schools in east London, while listening to the anecdotes and stories of the young girls of colour whose voices are rarely heard in cinema. Hence not a single scene feels actively fictional; if you grew up in London, you either know these girls, or you are them. But the specifics of the story, the inside jokes and cultural references, give way perfectly to the universal experiences of growing up and skipping responsibilities to mess about with your friends; Ikoko explains that the story is “so much bigger than us, so much bigger than what you see on screen.”
Despite its moments of brightness, the sense of impending tragedy that builds throughout the film is heart-breaking. Rocks forces us to witness the failures of systems designed to protect, from schools to social workers, and the documentary-like realism of the dialogue and performances make it hard to ignore the likely fact that a very similar story of a young person falling through safety net cracks is happening somewhere in the country right now.
It is a soaring testament to our ability to find joy and hope in human connection, even as everything else seems to be disintegrating.
These are the young people, hilarious, enterprising, resilient, that society tries to push to the margins, whose working-class neighbourhood schools the government consistently underfunds, who the media demonises and stereotypes. But Rocks, both the film and its titular character, never succumbs to this hopelessness. Ultimately, it is a soaring testament to our ability to find joy and hope in human connection, even as everything else seems to be disintegrating.
The Shard glints in the distance, but looking at the girls lying on an estate roof, braiding each other’s hair and sucking on lollipops, you get the sense that the millionaires there could only dream of this type of friendship, this intimate love, and perfect understanding.
Rocks is currently showing in cinemas and will be added to Netflix on October 1st.
Feature image credit: IMDb