With a largely non-professional cast and an improvised script, high school drama Rocks is a daring, some might say risky, third feature from director Sarah Gavron. The London-based plot centres around Shola (Bukky Bakray), a fun-loving teenager whose nickname gives the film its title. On what first appears to be like any other school morning, she wakes up to discover that her mother has absconded, leaving behind only a letter of apology and some cash in an envelope. Fending for herself and her little brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu), she is forced to grow up fast and puts on a brave face whilst trying to make ends meet and avoid unwanted attention from the local authorities.
Authenticity is key for this style of storytelling, and Gavron adopts an almost cinéma vérité approach for the naturalistic narrative. We see Rocks laughing and joking within the hustle and bustle of the East End; she is the class clown amongst her ethnically eclectic group of tightknit pals, but her joviality soon becomes an act to disguise her domestic turmoil. The heightened mean-girls template is given a Loachian makeunder, resulting in the most raw and relatable depiction of the British school experience I’ve seen in a long time.
Newcomer Bukky Bakray is the emotional heart of an excellent ensemble of first-time but in no way amateurish actors. She has fighting spirit and portrays Shola’s plight into poverty with genuine conviction and also shares a lovely bond with her charming little brother who is an absolute natural. There’s a free-flowing energy to the dialogue between the gang of girls whose group is refreshingly rich in diversity. They don’t see race or religion as boundaries and share their cultures with one another. Kosar Ali is the standout amongst the friends, playing hip-hop aficionado bestie Sumaya who, despite their differences, shows unwavering loyalty to Rocks when she needs it the most.
Rocks is a heartfelt and often hilarious film and its uplifting message shines through the cracks of Shola’s hardship. The director Gavron brings shape and structure to what, in less assured hands, could be quite a cluttered story. She controls the chaos masterfully in a warm tale of friendship where, as the title sequence puts it, ‘real queens fix each other’s crowns’.