Rocks review: a wildly charming celebration of teen potential

5
A pleasure to behold: Sarah Gavron's Rocks
A pleasure to behold: Sarah Gavron's Rocks

Dir: Sarah Gavron; Starring: Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, D’angelou Osei Kissiedu, Shaneigha-Monik Greyson, Ruby Stokes, Tawheda Begum, Afi Okaidja. 12A cert, 93 mins.

From the East End rooftop where Shola (Bukky Bakray) and her friends are killing time, the London skyline looks like a science fiction vision. Its hazy, glassy spires look nothing like the city they call home – a clutter of classrooms, street markets and housing estates, where the flats pile up in shoebox stacks.

Rocks is a film about that city – and, specifically, its hardy young female inhabitants, whose energy and resilience starts to feel like the place’s very heartbeat. It’s a contemporary coming-of-age story that isn’t quite like anything else in British cinema, and contains all the vibrancy, drama and joy of teenage life in dizzy abundance. 

It was grown from the ground up by director Sarah Gavron in drama workshops and youth hubs in the English capital, and the result is a film that doesn’t just show us its characters’ lives but really sees them, with a clarity, wit and compassion that makes your cheeks gleam. The life at its centre is led by Shola – Rocks is her nickname – a 15-year-old schoolgirl whose beleaguered mother does a bunk one morning, leaving her to fend for herself and her younger brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) in their Hackney apartment.

The outlook is trying, but somehow also the opposite of bleak. Writers Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson are less interested in offering a woe-is-her, grown-up perspective on Shola’s plight than putting us right alongside her, to show how much she’s able to accomplish through her own resourcefulness and nerve, with little more to rely on than a precociously level head. It also helps that she has a supportive group of friends, whose personalities are just as wide-ranging as their ethnic backgrounds.

Among them are the drily hilarious Sumaya (Kosar Ali), whose Somali household is caught up in a seemingly endless engagement party, newcomer Roshé (Shaneigha-Monik Greyson), who quickly picks up the nickname ‘Ferrero’, and Sabina (Anastasia Dymitrow), a Polish gypsy girl who confides in the group one lunchtime that her grandparents were murdered at Auschwitz. “Hitler,” a friend tuts in sympathy. “Man needs to fix up.”

Whether the scene is one of freewheeling small talk or something rawer and more wrenching, Gavron and her cinematographer Hélène Louvart tune the camera into every last telling detail. The result is not just social realism, but a kind of drama that seems to grow and blossom out of documentary. It has something of the spirit of Shane Meadows, the tenderness of Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda, and the insight of France’s Céline Sciamma, whose 2014 film Girlhood examined young female friendship in the Parisian banlieues through a similar lens.

Such a melting pot aesthetic is, of course, wholly in keeping with the world in which Rocks takes place: one teenage lad proudly describes himself as “Chinese-Jamaican-Ukrainian English,” to which Shola replies, bemused: “What do you eat at Christmas?” Gavron and her casting director Lucy Pardee have assembled a truly extraordinary group of first-time performers, who seem incapable of striking a false note between them, regardless of the story’s dips and swerves.

Bakray, who was 16 at the time of filming, is a serious find, and navigates some incredibly tricky emotional scenes with delicacy and conviction, grasping that Shola’s pride is both her superpower and Achilles’ heel. Her friends, meanwhile, are a total delight to spend time with, even when hurling handfuls of pancake batter at each other during home economics. There is a wonderful sequence in which the gang take a day trip to Hastings, and one suspiciously likens the coastal town to the white middle-class enclave from the horror film Get Out

There is no Sunken Place treachery here, though: no boo-able villains or sharp-elbowed polemic to contend with as Shola’s route into adulthood unrolls. Rocks would rather reckon with – and in the end, celebrate – youthful potential itself, and its extraordinary ability to flower in even the most unpromising soil. For Shola, even getting to the end of the day can feel like a test of endurance. But you’re left with the thrilling suspicion that tomorrow belongs to her.

Rocks is released in UK cinemas on Friday September 18