Early in Sarah Gavron’s powerful drama Rocks, students in an all-girl high school are assigned an art project about perception. Specifically, they are asked to ponder how others see them and the assumptions that are often made. For students like Shola ‘Rocks’ Omotoso (Bukky Bakray), a British teenager of Nigerian descent, and her multicultural group of friends, whose backgrounds range from Somalian to Polish Gypsy, this awareness of other’s perceptions is an unavoidable fact of life.
What makes these stereotypical assumptions flung at them so difficult to overcome is that they rarely take account of the harsh realities of their lives. These stressful circumstances beyond their control cannot truly be understood unless one has walked in their shoes.
Rocks may appear to be an average teenager on the surface when hanging with her friends and sharing her aspirations to be a cosmetologist with teachers, but she quietly carries a burden that no teenager should be asked to bear. When her mother (Layo-Christina Akinlude), who has a history with depression, unexpectedly disappears to “clear her head,” the teen finds herself guiding her seven-year-old brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) she reassemble the pieces of their newly shattered lives. Left with only a note and a few dollars for food, Rocks tries to keep up a normal life for Emmanuel while holding out faith that their mother will return shortly. However, as her grandmother in Lagos notes, not every woman is cut out for motherhood in the first place.
Discovering that her mother was fired from her job two weeks prior, and with their dad deceased, the walls quickly begin closing in on Rocks. Not only are there bills to pay, but child services begins poking its nose around her building and at school. In a losing race against time, and afraid to let her close friends in on the depths of her situation, Rocks starts channelling her frustrations through her bond with new bad girl at school Roshé (Shaneigha-Monik Greyson). However, even in her most rebellious moments, when she can briefly pretend to be a regular teenager, it is impossible to release the suffocating grip of her new reality.
Considering the constant set of disappointments Gavron’s protagonist faces, it would have been easy for Rocks to wallow in the realm of self-pity. Thankfully, Gavron has no interest in playing into stereotypes about the downtrodden minority class in Britain. She instead finds strength and hope in Shola’s resolve and the unbreakable bonds of friendship. This is not to say that the film does not touch on the racism and classism that hang around the peripheries of everyday life.
Whether it is Rocks mentioning that none of the white students support her school makeup business, the business owner who calls her “an animal” despite being the one who violates her rights as a customer, or teachers automatically assuming that her best friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali), who is Somalian, does not have the course qualifications needed to attend university, the inherent biases are unshakable. Even Rocks’ friend Agnes (Ruby Stokes), one of two white girls in her tight circle of friends, displays moments of blissful ignorance to the strife other cultures have endured throughout history. These moments do not define Rocks as a person though.
One gets the sense that, had her mother not left, Rocks would have had the same opportunities of normal middle-class life just like her peers. She would have probably gone of to university, like Sumaya’s sister, and could have eventually run a successful cosmetologist business.
Knowing the opportunities that are, temporarily at least, stripped from her due to the circumstance, and observing the perceptions saddled on her and her friends, Rocks is determined to not be a statistic. This mixture of pride and fear governs some of Rocks’ misguided decisions throughout the film. Rather than exploiting these decisions for maximum melodrama, Gavron’s lens quietly observes the emotions as they evoke.
The emotions in Rocks are honest and raw. One feels for the teenage protagonist because she is not like most fictionalized Black cinematic teenagers depicted in these types of narrative. She is not the victim of physical or emotional abuse. She does not live in a crime infested neighbourhood, and there is no boy/pregnancy drama. Rocks is simply a regular teenager trying her best to swim despite unfairly being thrown into the deep end with an anchor attached to her foot.
Gavron’s attention to detail regarding modern teenage life, and the way friends rally to support each other in times of need, even if it means keeping adults at bay for as long as possible, makes the film feel truly authentic. It also helps that she pulls great performances out of her predominantly first-time group of actors. Bukky Bakray and D’angelou Osei Kissiedu give outstanding performances in the lead roles, with Bakray doing the bulk of the heavy lifting emotionally. While they are the heart and soul of the film, Gavron also gets wonderful scene-stealing turns from Kosar Ali and Shaneigha-Monik Greyson. The ensemble performances help create a vibrant tapestry that is compelling to watch.
Rocks is an exceptional film that is equally beautiful and heart-wrenching without ever feeling manipulative. Thanks to its wonderful performances and rich emotion, Gavron presents teenage life in an honest way rarely captured onscreen. The film does not sugar-coat the severity of Rocks and Emmanuel’s situation; however, one walks away assured that her friends will be there every step of the way.