Olushola’s (Bukky Bakray) friends all remember when she stepped in to defend her best friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali) from the bullies. That’s why they now call it Rocks – solidarity is part of what defines it. Youth seen through the lens of director Sarah Gavron, better known since 2015 Suffragette. To be a young woman here is to be as stable and unchanging as the oldest mountain range.
The film puts us right in the middle of the East London clique of Rocks as they enthusiastically plan the junk food they’re going to gorge on after class, arguing over whether someone can lose their virginity to ‘buffer and start food fights in the midst of the home economy. Gavron, alongside casting director Lucy Pardee, rounded up the film’s teenage stars (many of whom debut here) before a single word of her screenplay was written. Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson then crafted a story drawn directly from the world and the experiences of its actors. The result is the most authentic British teenage film in years.
Rocks’ mother (Layo-Christina Akinlude) waves her and her brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) farewell as they head to school. The camera lingers for a moment. He studies her face, as his emotions begin to slide down an imaginary drain. Something is wrong. The siblings return to an empty house and a note explaining that their mother has gone to clear her head. Rocks doesn’t seem worried at first. It has already happened. But with each day that passes without her mother there, a part of her innocence is quietly knocked out, as she watches Emmanuel sink into helpless confusion and disarray. One day he will wait at the window like a downcast puppy, the next he will cry out that he will never want to see his mother again.
Rocks always stands up for others, but she finds it harder to share her own vulnerabilities. This is the biggest test his friendships will face. Ikoko and Wilson’s screenplay subtly explores the small hollows created between people by class and race. All of her friends want to help, but a middle-class white girl (Agnes from Ruby Stokes) won’t necessarily know the right way to solve a working-class black girl’s problems. Good intentions tend to turn sour. Gavron, meanwhile, finds depth in the vicinity of Rocks. There is no house or street here that does not tell its own story. Sumaya’s Somali family is celebrating an engagement, their living room is draped in silks and filled with plates of sweets. The girls still hang out on the same roof, where the central London skyline looms like sharp, jagged daggers behind them. The world of business and impeccable suits seems millions of miles away.
The events of Rocks are tragic, but the film – like its hero – refuses to be overcome by despair. Rocks can always find joy (even if it is fleeting) in his friends. They may have a hard time understanding her pain, but do what they can to calm her down. They will make her laugh in dance class or take her to a day by the sea. Rocks is a heartfelt testament to the resilience of adolescent girls.
Rocks is in UK cinemas from Friday 18th September