An empowering and emotionally authentic depiction of a teenager put into a dire situation, British director Sarah Gavron’s Rocks is gutting and hopeful in equal measure. Touching on themes of abandonment, peer pressure, and taking on responsibilities well above one’s own age bracket, Rocks dissects and analyzes a problem that many teenagers face in secret due to the fear of consequences. The story of a teenager having to care for a young one during a parent’s absence is one that has been told in many variations before, but Rocks might be the most bracing and realistic of the bunch.
Black London teen Shola “Rocks” Omotoso (Bukky Bakray) and her little brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) have just returned to school after summer holidays, and both are eager to reconnect with friends. Shola is a popular, decent student who dreams of one day being a self-made hip-hop billionaire, but she’s a lot smarter than such a statement seems on a surface level. One day, after school, Shola finds that her stressed out mother has disappeared. Mom left behind a note saying she had to go “clear her head” and a pittance of cash to get through her time away. This isn’t the first time mom has taken off at the drop of a hat, but Shola remains confident that she’ll return when she’s ready. Shola, whose closest living relative is a grandmother in Nigeria, tries to make it seem like mom is still around, but when the power gets cut off, and the rent is about to go unpaid, it starts to become a problem. Not wanting to be separated from young Emmanuel or for either of them to get caught up in the social services and foster care systems, Shola leans on her close group of friends for assistance and support.
Rocks speaks wisely and without judgment towards anyone of any age who has found themselves in a desperate situation. The script from playwright Theresa Ikoko and television writer Claire Wilson is measured and perceptive, never placing Shola and Emmanuel into situations that strain credibility for the sake of easy emotional responses. The plot and pacing of Rocks is exceptional and incremental, introducing the viewer to a character who has been through this sort of situation before and gradually making the siblings’ living circumstances unstable before turning Shola into a desperate person too quickly. Even when Rocks has to address the inherent despair and stress that starts to take over Shola’s life, the film wisely never introduces situations that the characters can’t navigate. They fall down, fret, get back up, and keep moving the best they can.
The viewer can certainly sympathize with Shola, even when they suspect she’s making bad decisions that will only come back to bite her in the end. Rocks examines these decisions through the characters’ close friends, none of whom can fully understand the gravity and weight of Shola’s situation no matter how hard they try. Like many teens with nowhere to go, Shola bounces between friends’ houses. Sumaya (Kosar Ali), Shola’s closest ally, comes from a large, traditionally Muslim family that’s both giving and uniquely privileged. New girl in school Roshé (Shaneigha-Monik Greyson) parties hard and is constantly picking fights, but she might also be able to provide Shola with some much needed employment. Agnes (Ruby Stokes), one of Shola’s few white friends, is the one who’s most stumped about what kind of support she can provide. All of these characters think Shola is reaching a point where she needs to speak up to someone in a position of authority about mom’s disappearance, but the resilient teen refuses, fearing the worst.
Rocks is revolutionary in the way it shows how a unit of friends can react to one of their own in need with unique blends of charity and skepticism. Almost every living arrangement or bit of aid given (and sometimes taken) will turn sour for Shola, and it’s up to those closest to her to decide if they can continue supporting someone reaching the end of their rope. Rocks is always on the side of Shola and Emmanuel, even at their worst, but most importantly the film wants the viewer to understand decisions and deceptions borne out of a perceived necessity to save face. Shola thinks no one understands her pain, and she’s probably right, but she’s too young and lacking in resources to be anything better than her own worst enemy the longer this situation drags on. It’s a film keenly aware of the characters’ balance between empathy and self-preservation.
Gavron (Suffragette, Brick Lane) and esteemed French cinematographer Helene Louvart (who also memorably shot the equally gorgeous and similarly toned Never Rarely Sometimes Always from earlier this year) match the realism of the material beat-for-beat. Rocks is a film that looks and plays like a tale adapted straight from the life of someone who lived through it. From testy interactions with older, white, male teachers at Shola’s all female school to chill out sessions among friends, Rocks never takes a false step for the sake of outrage or uplift. Every scene is staged with unending care, but never to a point where the direction comes across as fussy or staged.
A big part of Rocks’ success is in its casting. Bakray is a revelation in her first on screen appearance; a flawless blend of strength and vulnerability. Even when those around Shola don’t think that she can keep up this facade, Bakray’s performance showcases the character’s bottomless inner strength, making viewers want to believe that she can do anything. Kissiedu is an impressive younger actor, deftly making sure that Emmanuel – who’s still far too young to fully grasp what’s happening thanks to Shola’s sheltering nature – never becomes too precocious and cliched. They work brilliantly as a tandem, but Bakray also has impeccable chemistry with Ali and Greyson, who both give convincing performances as Shola’s two most wildly different friends. Gavron has created a group dynamic for Rocks that’s intimately detailed and convincing in ways that few teen centred films are able to achieve.
Teens are often stronger, smarter, and more resilient than adults give them credit for, and Rocks (which premiered in the Platform program at TIFF last year) proves that very point without speaking down to life’s harsher experiences. While Rocks is mostly about a young woman trying to survive and provide on her own, it’s also a poignant look at genuinely well-meaning people who want to support a friend in need, but they aren’t equipped to provide tangible, long term help. When things start to fall apart for Shola and Emmanuel, Gavron’s film doesn’t come as a huge surprise, but the rebound from these events is warm and hopeful in ways that are reasoned and earned. Most of Shola and Emmanuel’s problems won’t be solved by the end of Rocks, but some of their burdens will be eased, and sometimes that’s the best anyone in need could ask for. In turn, Rocks is the best anyone could ask for from such a humane and universally relevant story.
Rocks screens online at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox starting Tuesday, November 24, 2020. It is available on VOD starting Tuesday, December 1.