Rocks review - empowering, uplifting teenage girl power

Mark Kermode
·3-min read

What a wonderful, heart-breaking, life-affirming gem of a movie this is. Having proved a crowd-pleasing hit at the London film festival in October 2019 (how long ago that now seems!), this vibrant, insightful and deeply empathetic drama about teenage girls forging their identities in a potentially hostile world is grittily realistic, yet also fiercely optimistic. Boasting a terrific ensemble cast that showcases a host of talented newcomers, it’s exactly the film we need right now, pointing the way to a more positive future while looking the perils of the present day squarely in the eye.

Bukky Bakray is Shola, AKA Rocks – a force-of-nature 15-year-old east Londoner with a talent for makeup artistry, who returns home from school one day to discover that her depression-prone mother has abandoned her and her young brother Emmanuel (played with irrepressible flair by D’angelou Osei Kissiedu). All Mum has left behind is an apologetic note about needing to clear her head, and a pocketful of grocery money – hardly enough to see the kids through a week, or to keep the electricity running.

Determined to avoid being taken into care, Rocks attempts to fend for herself and Emmanuel, shuttling them between friends’ houses and cheap hotels while maintaining the outward appearance of normal life. But as each day passes, the pressures on Rocks increase, causing her to shut out those who have always been her closest allies, including Kosar Ali’s sharply intuitive Sumaya. Meanwhile, new arrival Roshé (Shaneigha-Monik Greyson) seems to offer a glimpse of an alternative existence, giving Rocks further reason to falter as her old life falls apart.

Related: Rocks stars: meet the teenage cast of the hot new British film

Written by up-and-coming Nigerian-British playwright/screenwriter Theresa Ikoko with film and TV writer Claire Wilson, and directed by Sarah Gavron (who made 2007’s Brick Lane and 2015’s Suffragette), Rocks is a genuinely collaborative production, born out of workshops with young people at a range of schools and youth hubs. It’s an anti-hierarchical approach that has given this team effort an impressively authentic edge. Everything about these teenagers’ lives rings true, from their battles for survival to the exuberance of a classroom food fight, or scenes in which the girls bust dance moves (an eclectic music playlist speaks volumes about their characters) on a rooftop, or in a train carriage.

Sensitively photographed by Hélène Louvart, who recently shot Eliza Hittman’s remarkable Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Rocks exudes such a natural air that you sometimes forget you’re watching a drama rather than a documentary – a quality amplified by bursts of phone footage. But despite the loose-limbed atmosphere, this is a rigorously constructed work, designed to lead the audience through the changing fortunes of its protagonist, seeing the world through her eyes, and those of her closest confidantes. The result is a film that combines the earthy honesty of Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home with the bittersweet beauty of Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant, and the girl-power oomph of Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood.

In keeping with the film’s proud “Team Rocks” ethos, it seems appropriate to mention casting director Lucy Pardee (who has worked with Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold), associate director Anu Henriques, and Rachel Clark, who shot second camera alongside Louvart; all have clearly contributed immensely to the film’s magical spell. But in the end it’s the cast who carry it, lighting up the screen even in moments of darkness, making us believe in their characters, and care deeply about their stories.

“Real queens fix each others’ crowns”, says a sticker on the wall in Rocks’s home. It’s a message that rings loud and clear through this empowering and ultimately uplifting movie.