A story about a teenager facing decidedly adult problems, Rocks follows an east London school girl with huge and terrifying responsibilities to shoulder. When her mum suddenly leaves their flat to ‘clear her head’ – and never returns – Olushola (or Rocks to all her mates) has to step up and take care of little brother Emmanuel. With nothing but a small wad of quickly disappearing cash and a pet frog between them, the pair go on the run, desperate to evade social services at all costs.
As things begin to unravel, the children struggle to come to terms with how suddenly they have been abandoned. With such a bleak starting point, it may seem strange to call Rocks a joyful story. And yet, often joyful is exactly what this film is. Through all of the grave issues that Rocks must navigate, this is frequently an exuberant and charming ode to friendship and resilience; peppered with phone footage of Rocks and her mates larking about in the playground and sunny afternoons spent on rooftops.
Cast in various secondary schools across Hackney, many of the Rocks cast are complete newcomers to acting, and their charismatic pull forms the heart of the entire film. Bukky Bakray is astonishing in the lead role. She portrays a teenager who is both headstrong and horrendously out of her depth at the same time – stubbornness encapsulated and always adamant that she can cope alone.
Meanwhile, D’angelou Osei Kissiedu, who plays Rocks’ younger brother Emmanuel, has a tendency to steal every single scene he sets foot in: gifted with both wit and comic timing. Reciting the Lord’s Prayer before dinner, Emmanuel puts his own spin on the verse (“Our father – he’s up in heaven.”). “To the remix,” his sister quips approvingly.
Directed by Sarah Gavron (Suffragettes, Brick Lane) Rocks’ unique background continues right through to the script: once casting was complete, screenwriters Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson worked on a script informed by getting to know the real-life cast. And it shows.
Often depictions of teenagers created by adults who left school decades ago can feel clumsy and somewhat disjointed; whereas Rocks feels raw and utterly of its time. Each scene bursts with youth and personality. The circle of friends who rally around Rocks are particularly magnetic to watch.
Discussing Hitler in the classroom, the teens comment “that guy needs to fix up” without missing a beat. And plotting an impromptu trip to Hastings in the final part of the film Rocks and her mates are full of wisecracks as they bundle together their lunch money for train fare. “Where’s Hastings,” they wonder. “1066!”
Yet, when the sadness does cut through, it’s potent and affecting. Khadijah (Tawheda Begum) has dreams of becoming a lawyer, but her teacher immediately shoots her ambitions down. When Rock’s best mate Sumaya (Kosar Ali) tried to help her friend out, Rocks is overwhelmed by the chatter and family that fills her house: “you have a perfect life,” she tells her, tinged with envy for what her own home lacks.
Rocks’ entrepreneurial spirit – and her playground make-up business – is clear to see, but visible mentors to help her hone her talents are nowhere to be seen. And while her friend Agnes (Ruby Stokes) is filled with well-meaning intentions, she can never understand Rocks’ struggle. “There’s got to be a way to sort this out,” she tells her, curled up in her enormous bedroom.
Ultimately, Rocks is a gripping story about young adults all bursting with energy and raw potential, with an underlying sadness that – for reasons completely beyond these teenagers’ control – some are still searching for the support to help fulfil it.
Rocks in cinemas from 18 September