'Rocks': Film Review

Courtesy of TIFF
Families fracture but girls bond in this lively British drama.

Sarah Gavron, director of the British period drama 'Suffragette,' turns her camera on contemporary London in this gritty tale of teen girls battling to survive.

Films about neglected children had special visibility at this year’s San Sebastian International Film Festival, and they were especially gripping. One of the best is a British movie, Rocks, directed by Sarah Gavron, who also made Brick Lane and Suffragette.

The film, which world premiered last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, will have some challenges in reaching an American audience, in part because of the disturbing subject matter and also because the East London accents of the polyglot cast members are sometimes hard to decipher. But this potent work about stolen childhood deserves attention because of the freshness of the cast and because it confirms that Gavron is a director to watch.

“Rocks” is the nickname of the British-Nigerian main character (played by a magnetic newcomer, Bukky Bakray). In a press conference after the screening, Gavron explained the unusual background to this movie. She gave special credit to casting director Lucy Pardee, who worked with the helmer for a full year to find the girls who would populate the film. It was only then that screenwriters Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson fashioned the script, drawing on what they learned from meeting the girls, many of whom had not acted before.

The story kicks in when Rocks’ mother suddenly abandons their home, leaving a note and asking Rocks to take care of her younger brother, Emmanuel (superbly played by a most engaging child actor, D’angelou Osei Kissiedu). Obviously this creates major challenges for an adolescent girl, but one of the most moving things in the movie is how Rocks makes a superhuman effort to shoulder the responsibility forced on her. Although teachers and social workers try to intervene, Rocks does her best to fend them off. She even engages in robbery to secure the money she needs for basic survival, but her lapses in judgment stem from the crisis facing her.

Despite these pressures, Rocks does not lose her joy in living. One of the most surprising and heartening elements in the pic can be found in the joyful rapport among the girls at school, especially when they respond to music and dance. Survival challenges but does not necessarily destroy the joie de vivre of the characters. 

Yet the film is far from an idealized portrayal of teenage friendships. When Rocks takes refuge at the home of her best friend, Sumaya (Kosar Ali), a British girl of Somalian origin, she cannot refrain from venting about the jealousy she feels regarding the stable family life that her friend seems to enjoy. And when she moves in with another friend, Agnes (Ruby Stokes), Agnes tries to help by alerting the authorities about Rocks' desperate situation; we can understand Agnes’ motivation, but we also apprehend the betrayal that Rocks experiences.

There is no clear or satisfying solution to the horrific family dilemma. Both Rocks and Emmanuel are ultimately placed in foster homes, and although their separation is heartrending, the open-ended conclusion suggests that the homes where they land may not be disastrous for either of them. The script and Gavron’s direction honor the complexity of the situation.

Gavron enlisted a mainly female crew — including cinematographer Helene Louvart, editor Maya Maffioli and composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch — and their empathy for the vulnerable characters enlivens the film. All the film needs to reach an American audience are subtitles.

Production company: Fable Pictures
Cast: Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, D’angelou Osei Kissiedu, Shaneigha-Monik Greyson, Ruby Stokes, Anastasia Dymitrow, Sarah Niles
Director: Sarah Gavron
Screenwriters: Theresa Ikoko, Claire Wilson
Producers: Ameenah Ayub Allen, Faye Ward
Executive producers: Will Clarke, Emma Duffy, Hannah Farrell, Sarah Gavron, Phil Hunt, Andy Mayson, Julia Oh, Compton Ross, Mike Runagall, Sue Bruce Smith, Natascha Wharton
Director of photography: Helene Louvart
Production designer: Alice Normington
Costume designer: Ruka Johnson
Editor: Maya Maffioli
Music: Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch

Casting: Lucy Pardee
Sales: Altitude Film Sales

93 minutes